Archive for November, 2010

There Is vs. There Are

November 30, 2010

In a phrase that begins with “there,” how do you determine whether to use “is” or “are” as the verb?

Well, verb tenses must agree with the subject as to whether it is singular or plural. “There” is not the subject; it is an adverb that tells where the subject is (in that place). So we don’t match the verb tense to the adverb “there,” but to the subject that follows it.

There are several wells in need of hot oil treatments to melt the paraffin buildup.
There is one well in particular that used to be a good producer, but hardly flows at all.

The subject of the first sentence is “several wells,” which requires the plural verb “are.”
The subject of the second sentence is “one well,” which needs the singular verb “is.”

The same rule applies to the past tense: “there was” vs. “there were.”

There once was a girl from Nantucket, who carried her dog in a bucket.
There once were three guys from Kuwait, who couldn’t come up with a date.

There will be a prize of a miniscule size for the one with a limerick great!
(Keep it clean – my bosses read this.)

Bimonthly vs. Semimonthly

November 25, 2010

Does “bimonthly” mean twice per month or every two months? And what about “biweekly” or “biannual”? Do they mean alternating weeks or years, or do they mean twice in the same week or year?

The short answer is “yes.” These “bi–” words go both ways (and that’s a good way to remember it). This can lead to considerable confusion.

One way to reduce the level of confusion is to use “semimonthly” to mean every half month or twice a month, and to use “bimonthly” to mean every other month. Likewise, you can use “semiweekly” to mean twice a week, and “biweekly” or even “fortnightly” to mean every two weeks. Hence, a semiannual sale would happen twice a year, whereas the SPE Digital Energy Conference that alternates between the Amsterdam and Houston locations would be a “biennial” opportunity to the folks not allowed to fly overseas.

The trouble with this solution is that the “bi–” words historically go both ways, so you can’t rely on your audience understanding it your way. To remove confusion completely, you can just say “twice a week/month/year” or “every other week/month/year” and be crystal clear as to what you really mean.

Finally, when you are reading and run across one of these “bi–” words, keep in mind that there are two possible meanings, and if you cannot figure out which one is correct from the context, by all means ask for clarification, especially if you’re about to sign a contract.

Trivia Question of the Day:

Of all the vegetables, only two can live to produce on their own for several growing seasons. All other vegetables must be replanted annually. What are the only two perennial vegetables?

Asparagus and rhubarb.

Incidence vs. Incidents vs. Instance

November 24, 2010

Not only do these three words sound practically the same, their meanings are so similar that people often confuse them.

Incidence means the degree or extent of the occurrence of some phenomenon.
The incidence of dry holes has decreased significantly since the advent of 3D seismic.

Incidents, the plural of “incident,” means “occurrences.”
Lost time incidents have decreased for company personnel, but not for contractors.

Instances are examples, illustrations, or realizations.
For instance:
After the merger, the IT department found itself supporting six separate instances of SAP.

As noted by Paul Brians in his book Common Errors in English Usage, “Incidents can be used as instances only if someone is using them as examples.”

Majority Rules

November 23, 2010

In Tip #112 we covered some pronouns that are sometimes singular and sometimes plural, depending on how they are used in the sentence. The noun “majority” follows roughly the same rule: if it looks like a plural, walks like a plural, and quacks like a plural, use the plural verb, and if it acts and quacks like a singular unit or quantity, use the singular verb.

Multiple individuals (plural):
The vast majority of engineers hate to write technical papers about their projects.

Collective unit or quantity (singular):
A 60% majority is needed to stop a filibuster in the US Senate.

The word “majority” should only be used with countable items, whereas “most” should be used for a non-countable quantity.

Countable items:
The majority of the cement sacks left out in the rain were still dry.

Non-countable quantity:
Most of the cement was placed in the wellbore.

Connote vs. Denote

November 19, 2010

The word “connote” means to imply or suggest something more than what is written or spoken.
Reading between the lines, the general manager understood what was connoted in the recommendation to award the contract to the alternate vendor.

The word “denote” means to show the meaning explicitly.
We use the % symbol to denote percentages, not the words “percent” or “per cent.”
Thus, connote and denote are implicit and explicit ways of noting something, respectively.
Follow-up to the last tip I sent about Compared To vs. Compared With:
Note that I didn’t mention “compared against.” This is not proper usage.
If you are focusing on the differences, use “compared with” or “contrasted with.”
The picks data from the Aberdeen server were compared with the picks data for the same wells on the Houston server.

Compared To vs. Compared With

November 13, 2010

When you are stressing the similarities of two different things, use “compared to.” You can usually substitute “likened to” for “compared to.”

A vertical well can be compared to a straw in a very tall glass of soda pop.
Buying an oilfield from another company can be compared to buying a used car: the seller is going to emphasize the positives while concealing the negatives.

If you are comparing both the similarities and the differences between two similar things, use “compared with.”

Please ask her to compare Version B with Version D of this control valve specification.
The wireline formation tester’s “mini-DST” results were compared with conventional well testing using drillstem test results.
Nothing compares with Nanny’s home cooking, especially her butter beans and corn bread!

Source vs. Cause

November 11, 2010

There is a fine distinction between being the source of something and being the cause of something.
The noun “source” means a point of origin or beginning, or one who initiates, generates or supplies something.
The noun “cause” means a reason or motive for an action or condition, or something that brings about a result or effect.

Here’s an example I ran across today while editing:
Lost circulation is the major [cause or source] of non-productive time (NPT) while drilling. Which one works best in this sentence?

Here I would choose “cause,” because NPT is the effect or result. NPT doesn’t initiate with or begin with or originate from lost circulation.
The difference is subtle, but if you think Cause / Effect, Source / Origin, you will be able to make the distinction.


Saw a typo today that cracked me up:

…throughout the project life spam

The Kaizen of Writing

November 11, 2010

I recently edited an article about Kaizen, the practice of continuous improvement. One of the anecdotes in the article was about a person who worked at Toyota. This person’s boss would not accept a document he had written because it was one line of text more than would fit on a single page. You see, at Toyota they have two sizes of documents: A3 and A4, which means letter size and 11 x 17 inches. All documents have to fit on a single page of either A3 or A4 paper. No need for a stapler at that company.

WOW! Imagine how many hours that saves in writing time, in reading time, and yes, in editing time. Think about how you might be able to condense your whole project status report, your proposal, your method, or your specification to a single piece of paper.

Just today a new customer came to my office asking for help in editing a 132-page report about petrophysics. If I were at Toyota, would I be able to pare that down to a solitary page? How? Surely only the most important, salient points would be included – basically an Executive Summary. Short words, short sentences, pictures that tell most of the story, just the beef, no baloney. The rest is superfluous. Try the Kaizen approach next time you have to write a document and see if short is really as sweet as they say it is.

Nounage and Verbiage

November 11, 2010

It seems to be a fad these days to take a word and add “–age” to the end of it to invent a new noun. I hereby dub this phenomenon “nounage.”
In most cases, there already exists a noun that describes the intended concept.

For example, I got a ride home from work one day with my buddy Mikey, who lived on the same side of town, because my car was in the shop for repairs. We called him Mikey because we had three Mikes at the office, so we called one Mike, called the second one Michael, and called the third Mikey to avoid confusion. Anyway, when Mikey was driving me home on a three-lane road, he asked: “What is the proper laneage?” The left lane was definitely preferred, but his word selection, albeit amusing, was also gauche.

I recently saw a television commercial with two young men trying to outdo each other in coming up with new –age words, such as breakfastage, dinnerage, and spillage-age. Such atrocities are enough to make a Grammar Meister want to toss one’s lunchage.

If you are tempted to coin a new word with the suffix –age, be kind and take a moment to think of another word that is already a noun. Choose your verbiage wisely.

Here are some permissible expressions you are free to use in your technical writing:
acreage         footage         mileage         seepage        steerage
baggage        frontage        outage          sewage          stoppage
blockage      fruitage          package       shortage       storage
breakage      linkage           passage        shrinkage     tankage
damage        manage          percentage  spillage         voltage
drainage      message         postage         spoilage       wreckage

More Stuff Spell Checker Will Miss

November 5, 2010

I was editing a white paper that was obviously written by committee today, and I ran across three things that needed fixing that Spell Check would never find.

1)      Filed instead of field
2)      Quiet instead of quite
3)      Perspective instead of prospective

The first two are just typos that happen when your fingers know the right letters to type, but they just put them in the wrong order because one hand is quicker than the other hand.
The only way to catch them is to read your text very carefully.

The third one requires some definitions.
Perspective is usually a noun that means a view or viewpoint, and refers to seeing things relative to each other, even mentally.
After living in Africa as a missionary for the summer, the American high school student had a whole new perspective on material possessions.

Prospective is an adjective that means expected in the future.
Fluid loss into a prospective reservoir zone can ruin many logging measurements.

I hope your prospects are all good!