Archive for October, 2010

Shall vs. Will

October 30, 2010

Both “shall” and “will” indicate a future action, but there are some subtleties that have to do with modality, which I shall discuss today.

In the first person (I or we), “shall” is used for future tense. In second and third persons (you, he, she, they), “shall” indicates a command or prophecy modality.

First Person Examples:
I shall go to the budget meeting tomorrow.
Shall we play golf this Saturday?
We shall overcome.

Second Person Example (command):
Bob, you shall go to the budget meeting tomorrow, no matter how much work you have!
You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness.

Third Person Example:
According to the Mayan calendar, the end of the world shall come in 2012.

The converse of the “shall” rule is true for “will.”
“Will” indicates the modality of willingness or determination in the first person, whereas “will” indicates future tense in the second and third persons.

I will lose ten pounds before my class reunion. (first person determination)
You will learn how to drill a horizontal well in this class. (second person future)
The contractor will install the steam generator tomorrow morning. (third person future)

“Shall” is also used in regulations and engineering specifications.
– Diesel trucks exceeding these particulate emissions limits shall be fined $20,000.
– The control valve shall be able to operate within specifications up to 130°F.
In both cases, shall is used in the third person to express determination or command.


More on Modal Verbs

October 29, 2010

Here is a synopsis of past and present tenses of some modal verbs:
        Present:        Past:
        Can             Could
        May             Might
        Must            Must
        Shall           Should
        Will            Would

Use different modal verbs in your request depending on the level of politeness needed.
Family dinner: Could you pass the salt, please?
Dinner at a nice restaurant: Would you pass the salt, please?
Dinner at the palace with the King and Queen: Might you pass the salt, please?

There is a change in pronunciation when the verb “to have” is used as a modal auxiliary in the expression “to have to,” meaning “must.”
She has a dog. (HAZ)            She has to be home by midnight. (HASS)
We have three cats. (HAV)       We have to be home before dark. (HAFF)

I don’t know why. That’s just how it is.

Make Your Emails More Readable

October 28, 2010

Most people scan their emails to determine whether they want to read it or not. This helps filter out junk mail or items of lesser importance, thereby increasing productivity.

To ensure that your emails are read, they should meet two important scanning criteria:
1)  Is the message important?
2)  Will it be quick and easy to read?

Here’s how to boost the readability of your emails:
1) KISS = Keep It Short and Sweet, or about 150 words.
2) Limit paragraph length to three sentences max.
3) Change a long paragraph into a bullet list.
4) Highlight any actions that need to be taken. Example:
Action Item:  Use a different color.
5) For prompt replies, end your email with a request rather than “Regards.”
Waiting for your reply….
What do you think?

These tips will help fellow workers plow through their inboxes in a timely manner.

I Might Could

October 27, 2010

Question from the Peanut Gallery today:
I hear some Texans (including my wife) use a word combination of “might could.” Your response?

“Are you going to bring kolaches to work tomorrow?”
“I might could,” the tall Texan answered.

People in the southern US use this expression informally, although grammarians consider it preferable to say “I might be able to.” Those hoity-toity grammarians would recommend using “I might” or “I could” alone, claiming that using both is redundant.

“In standard English, ‘might’ or ‘could’ are used by themselves, not together,” writes Paul Brians in his book Common Errors in English Usage. He cites similar expressions that are strictly prohibited: “had ought,” “hadn’t ought,” “shouldn’t ought,” and “might can.”

Well, if “might” expresses possibility, as covered in Tip #139, and if “could” expresses ability, as covered yesterday in Tip #141, then the stacked modal expression “might could” expresses two different modalities, the possibility of the future ability. If the tall Texan answered “I could,” the guy who wanted kolaches would feel far more confident of his breakfast the next day and might not eat his Cheerios at home beforehand. But the Texan said “might could,” so a bowl of Cheerios may be in order.

I would maintain that “might could” is not redundant or repetitive, but adds an extra dimension of meaning. It means “maybe I could” or “possibly I could” or “I don’t know whether I could or not” or “perhaps I could” or “maybe I will be able to if traffic isn’t too bad.” After living in Texas for 30 years, I have adopted several useful expressions in my speech, and “might could” is one of them, although I would use “might be able to” in formal writing.

Modal Verbs: Can Vs. Could

October 26, 2010

I’ve often shuddered at “should of,” which of course should have been should’ve, the contraction for “should have.” The same sin is often committed with “could of” and would of.” Sometimes these expressions are contracted even further into “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” Shiver me timbers! Perfect tenses of these verbs use “have,” not “of.”

These three verbs are examples of Modal Verbs, which express necessity, advice, ability, expectation, permission or possibility. Modal verbs often come in pairs. These include:
– May, Might
– Shall, Should
– Can, Could
– Will, Would
– Must, Ought to

We covered May vs. Might in Tip #139 last week. Today we will visit Can vs. Could.

“Can” expresses ability in the present (= is able to), whereas “could” expresses ability in the past (= was able to).

Today, Well 890 can produce 60 barrels of oil per day.
When it was first drilled, Well 890 could produce 250 barrels of oil per day.

“Could” is also used to express possibility, to make suggestions, and to make requests. “Could” is also used as the conditional form of the verb “can.”

The Vice President could show up any minute now. (possibility)
You could try stimulating that well to see if production increases. (suggestion)
Could you please tell me where the coffee filters are? (request)
If I didn’t have to answer her questions every 20 minutes, I could finish that report today. (conditional form of “can”)

Complete vs. Completed

October 22, 2010

I have the big job of pulling together the weekly status report for my team. Many items are wrapping up in the construction and commissioning section, and the question today from the Peanut Gallery is:
“Which is right?  Action Item A is completed? Or Action Item A was completed?”

The word “complete” is both an adjective and a transitive verb.
As an adjective, “complete” means fully constituted of all of its parts or steps, fully carried out, or thorough.
The Starship Enterprise made out of Lego blocks is finally complete.
Mary is planning a complete renovation of her kitchen.

As a transitive verb, “complete” means to bring to an end or a perfected status.
The contractor completed the foundation work on Tuesday.
The football quarterback completed a 75-yard pass for the touchdown.

Therefore, something is complete, or something has been or was completed.
Therefore, Action Item A is complete (adjective), or Action Item A was completed (past tense verb). Action Item A “is completed” is wrong, although “is being completed” or “is going to be completed” are proper verb forms.

Might vs. May

October 22, 2010

Quantifying the various probabilities and risks is very important in the oil patch. Using the correct words to describe potential situations is also important.

“May” and “might” both indicate possibility or probability, and are often used as synonyms, with “might” suggesting a somewhat lower probability.

“You may be right; I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.”
(Billy Joel song)
You might want to clean out that microwave; it’s disgusting!
The perforations in Well 92 might be plugged with asphaltenes, so we might need to do a hot oil treatment.

“Might” is also the past tense of the auxiliary verb “may,” so if you are expressing a speculation about conditions in the past or how they could have been otherwise, use “might” rather than “may.” For speculating about the future with good probability, use “may.”

Derek might have gone out to lunch (past); his office has been dark for an hour. However, he may be here in the next five minutes (future), so you might want to wait (small possibility).
The driller thinks the bottomhole assembly might have come off (past), but we may be able to fish it out within the next 24 hours (future speculation with somewhat greater probability).

If your use of “may” could imply that you are asking for permission rather than just speculating about probability, use “might” to avoid confusion.
I may attend the Miscible Flooding training course next week.
This could mean I have just received permission from my boss, or it could mean that I’m still thinking about it. If it’s the latter case, use “might.”

Accurate vs. Precise

October 20, 2010

The words “accurate” and “precise” are used interchangeably as synonyms by the general populace, but we scientists and engineers should obey the fine distinction between them.

Accurate means true, free from error due to reasonable care being taken.
The scales are accurate, because they accurately reflect the correct weight.

Precise means minutely exact or sharply defined.
The precise scale says I weigh precisely 132 lb 6 oz.
(In my dreams!)

You can never be too accurate, but you can be too precise if you exceed the number of significant figures (Sig Figs, my teacher used to call them) in your calculations.

Despite vs. In Spite Of

October 19, 2010

Question from the Peanut Gallery today:
Where do we use “in spite of” and “despite”?

The short answer is: You can use them interchangeably to mean the opposite of “because.” They are synonyms used as propositions to show a contrast with what one might expect.

Production from Well 84 did not increase despite perforating the new zone.
Production from Well 84 did not increase in spite of perforating the new zone.

Sometimes the phrase “in spite of the fact that” is used in front of the contrary clause. Just be sure not to use “in despite” or “despite of,” as these are not correct.

Both terms stem from the word “spite,” which means contempt, defiance, or despising. My mom often used the phrase “cut off your nose to spite your face” when I stubbornly refused to do something that would benefit me.
Fortunately I grew out of that, which is a good thing, because I need my nose to hold my eyeglasses up.

Tips for Tables

October 16, 2010

An Excel spreadsheet is a wonderful tool for processing large amounts of data to achieve the information needed to make decisions. Many times a part of a spreadsheet is just cut and pasted into a Word document to serve as a table. Here are some tips on how to make your tables better.

The goal of having a table in a document is to communicate a lot of information in a concise way that is easy to comprehend. Less is more in this situation, as too much data or too much formatting can interfere with readability and understanding.

One thing I like to do with tables is to make the Row and Column Headings bold to highlight them and separate them visually from the data in the cells. Another way to do this is to make the Column Heading background a light color, such as 10% gray. If you include the units in the heading, then you don’t need to take up so much room in the cells, and the numbers in the cells can still be used in calculations (they can’t if there is a mix of both a number and a unit in the same cell).

Another trick I like to do is to make the font bold for any averages or totals in the bottom row or in the right column, as these numbers carry more meaning. Such numbers are also more likely be used for other purposes, e.g., to prepare budgets, so the bold type makes them easier to find quickly.

When choosing how to justify the text in a column, I usually use right justification for money or numbers that vary in length, left justification if the text wraps around and continues on the next line, and centered for nearly everything else. I also like to have my cells’ vertical alignment in the center for single lines of text, and at the top for wrapped lines of text. To both align and justify a bunch of cells in a Word table, select or highlight them, right click, scoot down to Cell Alignment, then choose which of the nine options you need.

Finally, give your table an informative and descriptive title. If there are multiple tables in your document, number them. Put any information about exceptions or assumptions in a footnote, so if the table is copied into another document, that information goes along with it to the new location.