APPENDIX D: COMMON GRAMMAR, USAGE, & SPELLING PROBLEMS--continued

Appendix D: Common Grammar, Usage, & Spelling Problems--continued

This part of the appendix covers grammar problems involving the structure of a sentence as well as usage problems such as capitalization.

Parallelism

Parallelism refers to the way that items in a series are worded. You want to use the same style of wording in a series of items--it makes it easier on the reader. Widely varied wording is distracting and potentially confusing to readers. Here are some examples, with revisions and some comments:
Problem:   The report discusses how telescopes work, what types are
           available, mounts, accessories, and techniques for beginning star
           gazers. (The "how" and the "why" clauses are not
           parallel to the "mounts," "accessories," and
           "techniques" phrases.)

Revision:  The report discusses how telescopes work, what types of
           telescopes, mounts, and accessories are available, and how to begin your
           hobby as a star gazer.


Problem:   Customers often call the showroom to inquire about pricing,
           what items are available, and to place orders.  (The "what items
           are available" clause does not go with the two phrases beginning with
           "to.")

Revision:  Customers often call the showroom to inquire about prices,
           check on the availability of certain items, and place orders.


Problem:   While the dialysis solution remains in the peritoneal
           cavity, the dialysis is achieved, a process that includes the removal of
           nitrogenous wastes and correcting electrolyte imbalances and fluid
           overloads. (The "removal" phrase and the
           "correcting" phrase are not parallel to each other.)

Revision:  While the dialysis solution remains in the peritoneal
           cavity, the dialysis is achieved, a process that includes the removal of
           nitrogenous wastes and the correction of electrolyte imbalances and fluid
           overloads.

Problem:   This report is intended for people with some electronics
           background but have little or no knowledge of geophysical
           prospecting.(The "with" phrase is not parallel with the
           "have little" clause--this one is not even grammatical.)

Revision:  This report is intended for people with some electronics
           background but with little or no knowledge of geophysical prospecting.

Pronoun Reference

Pronoun reference is an area that has caused international conflict and created major rifts in the women's movement--so don't expect this little section to explain it all. A pronoun, as you may know, is a word like "he," "they," "him," "them," "which," "this," "everyone," "each," and so on. It's like a variable in programming--it points to some other word that holds its meaning. Problems arise when you can't figure out what the pronoun is pointing to (its "reference") and when it doesn't "agree" in number or gender with what it is pointing to. You may have experienced the first type of problem: you're reading along in some incredibly technical thing, and it up and refers to something as "this." You look back up at the sea of words you have just been laboriously reading through--you say "this what?!" You have just experienced one form of the pronoun-reference problem. Here's another example:
Problem:   Lasers have also been used to study the reaction by which
           nitric oxide and ozone make nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and molecular
           oxygen. It plays an important role in the chemistry of the ozone
           layer that surrounds the earth and protects us from the sun's harmful
           ultraviolet radiation.  ("It" what?)

Revision:  Lasers have also been used to study the reaction by which
           nitric oxide and ozone make nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and molecular oxygen.
           This process plays an important role in the chemistry of the ozone
           layer that surrounds the earth and protects us from the sun's harmful
           ultraviolet radiation. (Okay, now we see...)
The second kind of pronoun-reference problem arises over lack of agreement between the pronoun and what it refers to. Here is one common example:
Problem:   Motorola has just announced their new PowerPC chip.

Revision:  Motorola has just announced its new PowerPC chip.
The problem here is that "Motorola" is a singular thing, while "their" is a plural thing--they don't agree in number! Now, maybe any dummy knows what's being said here, but this is imprecise writing, and it can lead to serious problems, given the right situation. Here is a second example:
Problem:     These days, every student needs to own their own computer.

Revision 1:  These days, students need to own their own computers.

Revision 2:  These days, every student needs to own his or her own
             computer. (How politically correct...)

Revision 3:  These days, every student needs to own a computer.
The problem in this example is that "student" does not agree with "their": one is singular; the other, plural. Some self-proclaimed authorities have tried to call this usage acceptable. However, it is imprecise--and we care greatly about precision in technical writing. Maybe not in this example, but in other situations, we might look elsewhere in the context for the plural noun we think is being referred to by "their." As you can see from the revisions, there sometimes is no good way to fix the problem. (Things like "h/she" have pretty much been booed off the stage.) Whenever it works, try converting the singular noun to a plural--the plural pronoun will then be okay (but don't forget to change the verb to plural).

Here are some additional examples (the reference word is underlined and the pronouns are italicized):

Problem:   NASA hoped that, by using production tooling rather than by
           making each tool individually, they could save time and money.

Revision:  NASA hoped that, by using production tooling rather than
           by making each tool individually, it could save time and money.
Problem: If an energy efficient system can be developed, electrical vehicles could become as popular as its conventional counterpart. Revision: If an energy-efficient system can be developed, electrical vehicles could become as popular as their conventional counterpart.
Problem: Currently, Houston has $328.2 million in their 1984-1985 budget to help fund a new form of mass transportation. Revision: Currently, Houston has $328.2 million in its 1984-1985 budget to help fund a new form of mass transportation. Problem: Aerobic fitness programs help to improve an employee's physical condition by strengthening their circulatory, muscular, and respiratory systems. Revision: Aerobic fitness programs help to improve an employee's physical condition by strengthening his circulatory, muscular, and respiratory systems. Problem: American industry should implement aerobic fitness programs for the betterment of their employees even if there is some opposition to it at first. (A double dose of pronoun-reference grief!) Revision: American industry should implement aerobic fitness programs for the betterment of its employees even if there is some opposition to it at first.

Pronoun Case (Who, Whom)

Yes, you too can learn the proper usage of who and whom. (This will soon be an exciting new self-help seminar offered `round the country; look for it advertised late at night on a cable channel.) Who is used in the same slots that words like he, she, they, and we are used; whom is used in the same slots that him, her, them, and us are used. So if you can run a little replacement test, you can figure out which to use. Here's the test:
  1. Imagine that you start out with sentences like these (admittedly not an eloquent crew but they'll do):
    It was the NBS engineers [who, whom?] Sen. Eagleton's office 
    contacted on July 17.
    
    It was the NBS engineers [who, whom?] performed the tests on 
    the walkways.
    
    Send a copy of the report to [whoever, whomever?] wants one.
         
    No one is sure [who, whom?] will be the next mayor.
         
    It was the NBS engineers to [who, whom?] Sen. Eagleton's 
    office made the request for technical assistance.
    
  2. Now, strike out all the words up to the who or whom including prepositions:
    It was the NBS engineers [who, whom?] Sen. Eagleton's office 
    contacted on July 17.
    
    It was the NBS engineers [who, whom?] performed the tests on 
    the walkways.
    
    Send a copy of the report to [whoever, whomever?] wants one.
         
    No one is sure [who, whom?] will be the next mayor.
         
    It was the NBS engineers to [who, whom?] Sen. Eagleton's 
    office made the request for technical assistance.
    
  3. Next, juggle the remaining words so that they make a complete sentence:
    Sen. Eagleton's office contacted the NBS engineers.
         
    The NBS engineers performed the tests on the walkways.
         
    [Who, whom] wants one?
         
    [Who, whom] will be the next mayor?
         
    Sen. Eagleton's office made the request for the technical 
    assistance to the NBS engineers.
    
  4. If it sounds right to substitute I, he, she, they, we, use who. If it sounds right to substitute me, him, her, us, them, use whom:
    Sen. Eagleton's office contacted them. => (whom)
         
    They performed the tests on the walkways. => (who)
         
    He wants one? => (who)
         
    She will be the next mayor? => (who)
         
    Sen. Eagleton's office made the request for the technical 
    assistance to them. => (whom)
    
  5. Here are the results:
    It was the NBS engineers whom Sen. Eagleton's office contacted 
    on July 17.
    
    It was the NBS engineers who performed the tests on the 
    walkways.
    
    Send a copy of the report to whoever wants one.
         
    No one is sure who will be the next mayor.
         
    It was the NBS engineers to whom Sen. Eagleton's office made 
    the request for technical assistance.
    
This may not be the next Hoola-Hoop or Veg-a-Matic, but it works. And it works without having to toss around terms like nominative case and objective case. Try it on your friends... (Incidentally, the third example, which contains "whoever wants one," is typically missed by people who pride themselves on their grammar. The rule about always using whom when it comes after a preposition does not work! It's like those 10-day miracle diets.)

Capitalization

One of the big problems in technical writing involves capitalization. Technical people, developers, and other nonprofessional writers tend to use capital letters for everything that feels important--particularly the stuff that they've worked on. Problem is that this practice breaks all our standard capitalization rules and, more importantly, makes it harder to read. Most professionals in publishing, writing, and editing believe that excessive capitalization is distracting and confusing for readers. Capitalization should not be used for emphasis (use underscores or italics for that, or for really important things, use special notices.

Capital letters should be used for proper names--formal, official names of things and people. For example, Tandem Corporation is a proper name; Mosaic is a proper name of a software product. However, a loose reference to the "development area" at IBM does not need caps; it's not the official name of that area. Similarly, WordPerfect is a proper name, but not its grammar-checking feature. In technical writing, the impulse is often to use caps for the components of a thing--fight it off! For example, if we were discussing the disk drive, the monitor, the CPU unit, the modem, the mouse, or the printer of a computing system, none of it should be capitalized. However, if we were talking about the the Dell NL40 Notebook computer, the Microsoft Mouse, or the IBM 6091 Display, then certainly caps are in order.

Of course, there are some exceptions. For example, in instructions, you want to reproduce the capitalization style shown on buttons, knobs, and other physical features of products as well as on the display screens of computer programs just as they are shown on the hardware. If I have a Service button on my computer, I'd write it as Service or SERVICE, whichever way it is shown on the machine.

A common misuse of capitalization involves acronyms. You know that whenever you use an acronym in your text, you should spell it out first then show its acronym in parentheses. Writers often want to put the spelled-out version in initial caps; you would do so only if the spelled-out version were a proper name in its own right:

     The National Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed just 
     after Word War II.

     When you turn your computer on, it normally goes through a process 
     called initial program load (IPL).
These capitalization rules often get bent a little in resumes and application letters. Typically, names of occupations and fields, and job titles get initial caps. By standard capitalization rules, that's not correct, but the usage is so strong in these two types of documents that it has become acceptable.

Numbers vs. Words

In the preceding section on hyphens, it was pointed out that worrying too much about hyphens will drive you crazy--so will numbers. The main hurdle to overcome is to learn that in technical contexts, we use numerals in text, even ones below 10. In other words, we break the rules that are taught in regular writing courses and that are used in normal publishing and copyediting practice. That's because in the technical and scientific context, we are vitally interested in numbers, statistical data, even if it's a 2 or 5 or--yes--even a 0. The difficulty is in defining the rules. You should use numerals, not words, when the number is a key value, an exact measurement value, or both. For example, in the sentence "Our computer backup system uses 4 mm tape" the numeral is in order. Also in "This recipe calls for 4 cups of unbleached flour." But consider this one: "There are four key elements that define a desktop publishing system." A word, not a numeral, is preferable here because--well, how to explain it? The number of elements is exact all right, but it's just no big deal. Four, five, who cares? However, if I use 5 cups of flour, I'll have a miserable, disgusting cake. To summarize the rules that we normally apply: Here are some examples where these rules are applied:
     Some 19 million tons of sulphur dioxide are discharged from US sources
     alone each year, and another 14 million tons from Canada.(Using the
     number "19" and the word "million" indicates an
     approximate amount.  "19,000,000" might make some readers think
     it was an exact amount.)
     
     It was not until after December 1952, when 4000 people died in London from
     air pollution in just a few days, that real gains in pollution-control
     legislation were made.
     
     The US Army's standard airborne Doppler navigator weighs 28 lb (12.7 kg),
     requires 89 W of power, and operates at 13.325-GHz frequency.
     
     All vitrain of the European classification, if more than 14 micrometers
     thick, has been regarded as anthraxylon.
     
     In 1971, 11 countries accounted for about 91 percent of world production of
     coal.
     
     The Department of the Interior has just published a report that reviews 65
     different coal gasification processes.
     
     Combustion turbines total about 8% of the total installed capability of
     US utility systems and supply less than 3% of the total energy generated.
     
     Internal combustion engines in small power plants account for about 1% of
     the total power-system generating capability of the US.
     
     The water-cement ratio will generally range from 4 gal of water per sack of
     cement to about 9 gal per sack. (These are exact values here; in
     technical writing, use the numeral even if it is below 10.)
     
     The problem is located in piston number 6. (When there enumerated items
     or parts, technical writing uses the number, as in this example. But notice
     that no "#" or "No." is used.)
     
     The signal occurs in 6-second intervals.  
     
     The order is for 6-, 8-, and 12-foot two-by-fours.  
     
     Use Code 3 if a system shutdown occurs.   
     
     Mined coals commonly contain between 5 and 15 percent mineral 
     matter.  
     
     The above illustration shows a 20-unit coaxial cable with 9 working coaxial
     pairs and 2 standby coaxials, which automatically switch in if the
     electronics of the regular circuits fail.
     
     There are 59 different species of the coffee shrub, but only 4 are of
     commercial importance.
     
     Most grinds of coffee contain particles ranging in size from 0.023 to 0.055
     inches in diameter.
     
     Using carrier frequencies between 0.535 MHz and 1.605 MHz in the US, AM
     broadcasting stations sprang up all over the country beginning in the
     1910s.
     
     As a base from which to work, 2-1/2 to 3 gal of water are needed for each
     sack of cement for complete hydration and maximum strength. (These are
     exact values; therefore, in the technical-writing context, we use
     numerals. Notice how fractional values are handled: put a hyphen between
     the whole number and the fraction to prevent misreading.)
     
     The order for twelve 30-foot beams was placed yesterday.  
     
     The order was for 30 fifteen-gallon tubs.  
     
     They used six 8-pound sacks of nails.  
     
     The microprocessors of the 70s and 80s operated under the control of clocks
     running at 1 to 5 MHz, that is, 1 to 5 million counts per second.
     
     Your eye has a bandwidth of 370 trillion Hz, the visible spectrum. 
     
     Transmission rates on ETHERNET range from 1 to 10 megabits per second
     (0.125 to 1.25 million bytes per second).
     
     In 1978, the satellite carriers' revenues were about $88 million, and by
     1986, they are expected to reach $800 million.
     
     Most communications satellites are in geostationary orbit: at an altitude
     of 22,300 miles over the surface of the earth and at a distance of 26,260
     miles from the center of the earth (the earth's radius being 3960 miles).
     
     Aggregates constitute about 70 percent of a concrete mix.  
     
     Uniform compaction of 95% or better of standard AASHO densities is
     recommended.
     
     In this book, Chapter 7 discusses the different audiences of technical
     prose and translation techniques for communicating effectively with the
     less specialized ones.
     
     The wheels of the four-wheel tractor give it increased speed over the
     Crawler, but because of the weight distribution over four wheels rather
     than over two wheels or tracks, this vehicle has less traction.
     
     Hundreds of thousands of people will have purchased microcomputers by the
     end of 1980. Tens of millions of them will bought them by the end of the
     century.
     
     There are two telephones in service today for every three people in the
     US.
     
     In 1965, Dr. Gordon Moore announced his "law" that the complexity
     of a chip would double every year for ten years. (Use the word
     "ten" here because it is not an exact amount.)
     
     The typical stand-alone microcomputer system consists of seven physical
     components. (Use the word "seven" here because, even though it
     seems like an exact amount, it is not a key value. It doesn't have the same
     significance as the "7"would have in "7 quarts of
     oil.")
     
     If you are using page-zero addressing, use a RAM for memory page zero.
     
     Primary fuel cells are those through which reactants are passed only one
     time.
     
     Before recharging, A zinc-carbon battery must have a working voltage not
     less than one volt. (Even in technical-writing contexts, rules for one
     and zero vary. Just pick a style and stay with it. Using the word
     "one" is the standard in this example.)
     
     Japan has roughly one-third of the US production of dry batteries.  (In
     running text, always write out fraction like this, and hyphenate
     them. However, you'd still write "5-1/2 inches.")
     
     The radial fractures are so extensive that they are the dominant structural
     element over half of Mars's surface. (And just to be sure,
     "half" by itself in running text is always a word.)
     
     A nanosecond is one-billionth of a second.  
     
     Inside the UP are three 16-bit registers. (When you have two separate
     numerical values side by side, one has to be a word, and the other a
     numeral. Styles vary here, but make the numeral the higher number. Contrast
     with the next example.)
     
     Data from the frequency counter take the form of 16 seven-bit ASCII words.
     
     Sales of batteries have increased from $510 million on the average during
     1957-1959 to $867 million in 1966 and are projected to exceed $1.8 billion
     in 1980.
     
     The speed of light is roughly 300 million meters per second.
     
     Fifty-three representatives of different software development companies
     showed up at the meeting. (Never start a sentence with a numeral in any
     writing context. With this example, some rewriting might be a wise idea to
     get the numerical out of the beginning of the sentence, as in the following
     rewrite.)
     
     At the meeting, 53 representatives of different software development
     companies showed up.

Symbols and Abbreviations

In technical-writing contexts, you may often have to decide whether to use " or ' for "inches" or "feet" or whether to use "inches," "in," or "in."

First of all, remember that symbols and abbreviations are distracting to readers; they are different from the normal flow of words. However, there are plenty of cases where the written-out version is more distracting than the symbol or abbreviation. Also, the context (specifically, technical or nontechnical) has a lot to do with which to use.

Imagine a technical document which has only one or two references to numerical measurements in inches. There is no reason to use symbols or abbreviations here--just write the thing out. But imagine a technical document with numerous feet and inch references: using symbols or abbreviations in this case is better, more readable, more efficient for both reader and writer. But which? Imagine the amount of foot and inch references there would be in a carpentry project (for example, a dog house). In this case, the symbols, " and ' would be greatly preferable. However, this would be an extreme case; otherwise, use the abbreviations.

Which are the standard symbols and abbreviations to use? Go with the standards in the field in which you are writing, or with those found in a standard reference book such as a dictionary. Don't make them up yourself (for example, "mtrs" for meters)!

What about plurals? Very few abbreviations take an s to indicate plural: for example 5 in. means 5 inches. For the few that you think might take the s, check a dictionary.

What about obscure abbreviations and symbols? If you are concerned that readers might not recognize the abbreviation or symbol, write its full name in parentheses just after the the first occurrence of that abbreviation or symbol.

Here are some examples of abbreviations or symbols in text:

     High resolution displays use larger video bandwidths, up to 30 MHz 
     or more. 

     Most touch-sensitive displays use a matrix of either 
     LED/photodiodes or transparent capacitor arrays to detect a 
     physical touch.  
     
     The part of the memory that is easily alterable by the operator 
     consists of RAM chips.  
     
     A satellite in geostationary orbit looks at the earth with a cone 
     angle of 17.3 corresponding to an arc of 18,080 km along the 
     equator.  
     
     The arc from 53 W to 139 W will cover 48 states (excluding Alaska 
     and Hawaii) and is said to provide conus coverage.  
     
     Fairchild Industries, Inc., was an early participant in commercial 
     satellites.  
     
     The voice was compressed from the usual 64-kb/s pulse code 
     modulation (PCM) to 32 kb/s per channel by near-instantaneous 
     companding (a modified PCM technique).  
     
     Terrestrial microwave radio communications require repeaters spaced 
     every 20 to 40 mi from each other.  
     
     Over a period of several days the spacecraft is tracked from the 
     ground and positioned on station (i.e., in the preassigned orbital 
     spot) in order to commence operations.  
     
     A velocity increment of approximately 155 ft/s per year is required 
     to correct drift problems in satellites.  
     
     The ancient battery-like objects made by the Parthians in 250 BC 
     were thin sheets of copper soldered into a cylinder 1.125 cm long 
     and 2.6 cm in diameter.  
     
     The standard electrodes are the normal and the 0.1 normal (N) 
     calomel electrodes in which the system is Hg|KCl solution saturated 
     with HgCl.  
     
     Such batteries contain 4400 cc of water in which NaOH is dissolved.
     
     Water pressure in the heat recovery loop can be as much as 25 psig.
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This information is owned and maintained by David A. McMurrey. For information on use, customization, or copies, e-mail davidm@austin.cc.tx.us or call (512) 476-4949.