Archive for June, 2010

Avoid Alphabet Soup

June 30, 2010

No, don’t worry, Campbell’s hasn’t recalled any of their cans of alphabet soup.

Rather, I was referring to the overuse and abuse of TLAs, or three-letter acronyms.

When I was a technology magazine editor, a computer-related press release typically resembled a bowl of alphabet soup,

and after reading a single paragraph, my head would start swimming with all the letters in the soup. Here’s a real-life example:


Today, the standard methods for moving the network/host address boundary are variable-length subnet masking (VLSM) for host addressing and routing inside a routing domain, and classless interdomain routing (CIDR) for routing between routing domains. Think of a routing domain as an ISP’s collection of routers. And although treated separately here for introductory reasons, it is important to realize that VLSM is the fundamental mechanism of CIDR. CIDR (defined in RFC 1519) and VLSM (defined in RFC 1860) address more general issues than simple subnetting….

YIKES! It’s almost unreadable. Yes, we use a lot of acronyms as a shorthand method of conveying familiar terms to each other while doing business together. However, when someone just outside your “lingosphere” tries to read it, both the reading pace and understanding level take a deep plunge into the soup bowl, even if you spell out each acronym the first time it is used, as in the snippet above.

Basically, you have three ways to make your alphabet soup disappear:

Spell acronyms out all the time – this is best done for shorter words and phrases.

Try to avoid lumping multiple acronyms into the same sentence or paragraph.

Put your spoon down, pick up your bowl, and SLUURRRPPP!

Commas Are Important

June 29, 2010

A comma is such a little thing. However, by adding one or by not adding one, the entire meaning of a sentence can change.

Example: The prefab building shall include a control room, shift accommodations and training area.

If the vendor reads this specification, will it be clear as to whether there should be two rooms (one control room and one for shift accommodations and training) or three separate rooms?

Revision for three areas case:

The prefab building shall include a control room, shift accommodations, and a training area.

Revision for two rooms case:

The prefab building shall include a control room, as well as a shift accommodations and training area.

Now there is no confusion. See how a little comma is critical to the sentence?

The SPE Style Guide states: “In a series of three or more elements, use commas between each element and before the final conjunction.”


A, B, and C.

W, X, Y, or Z.

The key is to be consistent throughout your document in applying this rule, otherwise confusion such as happened in our first example will occur.

Here’s another example, sent in by a member of the Peanut Gallery:

An English professor wrote the following words in chalk on the blackboard:

(Remember those? Oops, there I go dating myself again. I’ve got to quit doing that!):

“A woman without her man is nothing”

The students were asked to supply the proper punctuation. All the boys in the class wrote:

“A woman, without her man, is nothing.”

All the girls in the class wrote:

“A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

You see? A comma can be a very powerful thing!

Confused Word Pairs

June 28, 2010

Top Ten List of Confused Words

I received a valuable contribution from the Peanut Gallery today: a link to Merriam Webster’s Top Ten list of word pairs that are often confused with each other. I thought I would include the link as today’s Tip of the Day. (Thanks, Dave!)

1)      Flaunt vs. Flout

2)      Affect vs. Effect

3)      Desert vs. Dessert

4)      Stationary vs. Stationery

5)      Flak vs. Flack

6)      It’s vs. Its

7)      Pore vs. Pour

8)      Fewer vs. Less

9)      Flounder vs. Founder (verbs)

10)  Principal vs. Principle

If you’ve ever wondered about any of these, please follow the link above and click NEXT to view the next pair. Each entry explains the difference between the two words, and also gives you a way to remember each one.

Inclusive Salutations

June 25, 2010

Today I received an email blast with the salutation “Gents:” at the beginning.

Um, I’m not exactly a “Gent,” and I don’t think the other ladies listed as recipients are, either.

I was more surprised than offended, but let me hop up on my soapbox here for a minute.

The oil business has been the bastion of the Good Ol’ Boys for many decades,

but we’re trying to recruit more women into the industry.

I think the gentle gender’s communication skills and preference for cooperation over competition would serve the oil industry well, particularly with today’s focus on multidisciplinary teams and documentation of lessons learned.

Back in the day, I broke a glass ceiling at the Society of Petroleum Engineers by being the first woman ever to be appointed Review Chairman over the Technical Editors in the Peer Review Committee.

Back then, SPE sent form letters to the Review Chairmen with the salutation “Gentlemen:” –

and I asked them to change it to “Dear Review Chairmen.”

I didn’t insist on “Chairperson,” as “Chairman” was the official job title for that volunteer position.

But that was back in 1989; this is 2010, a whole new millennium.

I would suggest that professionals in the modern, multicultural environment should use a more inclusive salutation in their business correspondence than “Gents”, such as “Colleagues” or “Team Members,” or “Ladies and Gentlemen.”

Unless, of course, you ascertain that every person listed in the TO:, CC: and BCC: address boxes are indeed “Gents.”

We Good Ol’ Gals want to feel included as bona fide members of the team, too.

Manufactures vs. Manufacturers

June 24, 2010

Manufactures vs. Manufacturers

A question from the Peanut Gallery always makes my day.  John asks:

“I have a question for you. In many documents like inspection requirements and vendor data requirements, I often see the word: Manufactures, as in Manufactures Data Book requirements. I always thought it should be Manufacturers. Are both correct, or do they have different meanings?”

Your thoughts are correct, John. They do have different meanings.

“Manufactures” is a verb (present tense).

Example: Cameron manufactures blowout preventers.

“Manufacturers” is a noun (plural).

Cameron and National Oilwell Varco are manufacturers of blowout preventers.

They are often pronounced the same, especially with a Texas drawl.

In the example you gave, if somebody “manufactures” data book requirements, the boss needs to have a serious talk with that person.

If you are referencing the data book requirements provided by a single manufacturer, it should be the singular possessive: manufacturer’s data book.

If you are referencing the data book requirements provided by multiple manufacturers, it should be the plural possessive: manufacturers’ data books.

Provide With

June 23, 2010

There is some discussion in the grammar blogosphere about whether you need to use the preposition “with” when you use the verb “provide.”

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, the following usage is acceptable:

“… provide the children with free balloons.”

A verb like “provide” requires three things:

–         The subject, or provider

–         The direct object, or thing provided

–         The indirect object, or recipient of the thing provided

In practice, such a sentence can be written several ways:

 1) The clown will provide free balloons for the children.

2) The clown will provide the children free balloons.

3) The clown will provide the children with free balloons.

There are several other verbs – synonyms – that use a similar sentence construction:

Supply the children with free balloons.

Present the children with free balloons.

Furnish the children with free balloons.

So, in a nutshell: Yes, you can provide somebody with something.

Hyphenated and Joined Suffixes

June 22, 2010

We’ve covered joined and hyphenated prefixes in the past two weeks, so today we’ll cover joined and hyphenated suffixes, which come at the end of the word rather than the beginning. Here’s a handy-dandy table:

Suffix: Type: Examples:
-based Hyphenated oil-based mud, water-based mud
-free Hyphenated oil-free, sugar-free, fat-free, gluten-free
–drive Joined steamdrive, waterdrive, overdrive
–fold Joined twofold, threefold, fourfold, tenfold
–wide Joined nationwide, fieldwide, companywide, worldwide
–wise Joined crosswise, otherwise, lengthwise, clockwise

Spotted a typo this week that cracked me up. On one of the cupboard doors in the company kitchenette there was a white, printed label with black letters stating:

“Plates / bowels”

It’s enough to make you lose your appetite!

Hyphenated Prefixes: Self- and Post-

June 21, 2010

Last week I developed a list of joined prefixes that do not require a hyphen.

Today I will share a list of prefixes that are hyphenated.

“Self-” is always hyphenated.

Examples: self-adhesive, self-assessment, self-assured, self-contempt, self-critical, self-defeating,

self-defense, self-directed, self-doubt, self-educated, self-evaluation, self-imposed, self-improvement, self-renewal, and self-restraint

“Post-” is always hyphenated when the second part of the word is capitalized.

Examples: post-Cambrian, post-Darwinian, post-Freudian, post-Victorian

According to the AP Style Guide, the prefix “post-” is usually a joined prefix, i.e., without a hyphen.

Examples: postseason, postwar, postdoctoral, postdated, postscript

The AP Style Guide suggests following Webster’s New World dictionary,

which has a relatively long list of non-hyphenated “post-” words, and if it’s not listed there, hyphenate the word.

However, the SPE Style Guide says “post-” should be hyphenated all the time.

Knowing how eagerly engineers run to the dictionary every time they want to hyphenate a prefix,

I would recommend going with the SPE Style Guide, just for the sake of expediency.

In short, go ahead and hyphenate “self-” and “post-” words.

Except “selfish” and “post office,” of course.

Works and Equipments

June 18, 2010

I’ve noticed several uses of “works” and “equipments” in engineering documents lately, and I have been whacking the “s” off the end of them as I edit. I did a little research as to why so I could explain it fully to y’all.

It turns out that there are two kinds of nouns: countable and uncountable. Countable nouns have plurals, such as wells, valves, flanges, etc. Uncountable nouns do not have plurals. If you look up the word “equipment” in the dictionary, it does not have a plural listed because it refers to a quantity of unspecified stuff, “a set of articles or resources serving to equip a person or thing,” as Webster defines it. A set is singular.

Think of the word “rice,”  which is another example of an uncountable noun. (Yes, you could actually sit down and count each grain of rice, but then we would have to send the nice little men in the little white coats to come and take you away, ha-ha.) If you ate just one grain, you wouldn’t say “I ate a rice,” and you certainly don’t say “I ate my rices.”

Equipment is used in the same manner. You wouldn’t say “We installed an equipment,” or “We installed three equipments.” You would probably say: “We installed three pieces of equipment.” Equipment is uncountable, and thus is always singular.

Some nouns are both countable and uncountable, and therefore can have both singular and plural forms.

Examples: Food and foods, candy and candies, coffee and coffees, sand and sands.

Note that the first word of each of these pairs describes a quantity of unspecified stuff much like “rice” and “equipment.” Thus the singular form is the uncountable form.

The second word in each of these pairs refers to multiple individual things (countable), so the plural form is used.

This brings us to work vs. works. Work is the uncountable form. We do the work, the work gets done. Again, it is a quantity of unspecified stuff.

However, the plural form “works” is the countable form, and this refers to individual pieces of work, such as works of art. Here are four other cases where the plural “works” can be used:

1) A mechanism or machine; the means by which something happens; workings.

Example: A single sand grain can really mess up the works of a Swiss watch.

2) A factory or similar collection of buildings, such as steel works.

Example: When Hurricane Ike knocked out the power, Houston’s water works shut down.

3) All the available toppings or accoutrements.

Example: I’ll have a hotdog with the works.

4) An act associated with moral or religious standing.

Example: Mother Teresa was known for her good works in India.

So, if you are completing the work, you are finishing up the job effort. If you are completing the works, you are either finishing up the machine, the factory, or the whole kit and caboodle.

Prepositions: Ancient and Dangling

June 17, 2010

A preposition is a word that shows a temporal, spatial, or logical relationship between other words in the sentence. Examples include “between” and “in” in the previous sentence.

Other common prepositions include:

about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, but, by, despite, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, onto, out, outside, over, past, since, through, throughout, to, toward, under, underneath, until, up, upon, while, with, within, and without.

I don’t like to use “amongst” or “whilst” because they sound as archaic as “thee, thou, thy, and thine.” British English uses the older versions, whereas American English drops the “-st”. I also avoid the use of “till” to mean “until,” because it is SOOOO twelfth century! I prefer to use “until” so as not to be mistaken for tilling the soil for the garden, and I prefer the contraction ’til when stating that a party is scheduled from “5 p.m. ’til ?” or vowing to remain faithful “… ’til death do us part.”

Many grammar gurus advise against leaving “dangling prepositions” at the end of a sentence, recommending that the sentence be rewritten to include the object of the preposition in its proper place – after the preposition (which literally means “positioned before.”)

Bad Example: That’s the house the mugger ran into.

Here the word “into” dangles without an object after it.

Revised: That’s the house into which the mugger ran.

Classic Good Example from John Donne: “Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Note that he didn’t say “…whom the bell tolls for,” which would be a dangling preposition with nothing positioned after it.

A classic, exaggerated example is Winston Churchill’s quote: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

That sounds completely stilted, which is what happens when you try to revise certain sentences to obey the rule about avoiding dangling prepositions. Sometimes, it’s acceptable simply to let your preposition dangle.

OK Example: What are you looking at?

You would never say: “At what are you looking?”

Here’s what I recommend for prepositions: Try to word the sentence so the preposition has something after it and doesn’t dangle, but if it sounds completely ridiculous when you say it out loud, then just let it hang out there all by itself. And if anybody squawks about it, that person can take over my duties as Writing Tip of the Day Grammar Guru!