Archive for April, 2011

Specially vs. Especially

April 30, 2011

Special means that something has an identity, quality, purpose, or character all of its own, therefore it cannot be compared to anything else.

Especial means distinctive, noteworthy or of certain importance in comparison with something else, thereby implying that something of lesser value exists.

They are both used to mean out of the ordinary or exceptional.

If you need an adverb with –ly at the end of it, you will usually use especially, as it means particularly or exceptionally. However, if you want to stress the distinctive purpose of something custom-built, use specially.

He enjoyed the desserts, especially the chocolate cake.
The chocolate cake was specially made for him.

Profound Quote of the Day:

“I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.”
– Albert Einstein


Onto vs. On To

April 29, 2011

As a follow-up to my last Tip of the Day, let’s talk about the difference between Onto and On To. Although similar to the Into vs. In To discussion, this one is a little more cut and dried, black and white, so you don’t have to say “That depends.”

Verb phrases that include the word On (hold on, come on, go on) behave similarly to verb phrases that include the word In when they encounter the preposition To; i.e., they avoid each other.

Cowboy Bill, you better hold on to the reins a bit tighter when you’re riding Ol’ Hurricane!

Cowboy Bill was coming on to the pretty lady at the Three Springs Saloon, but he decided to go on to the bunkhouse when she showed him her wedding ring.

The Chicago Manual of Style has a nifty way to tell when to use Onto:
If you can insert the word Up in front of the On To and it makes sense, use

The cat jumped (up) onto the kitchen counter and started eating the tuna salad she had just prepared for sandwiches.

Into vs. In To

April 27, 2011

The words In, To, and Into are all prepositions, but does
that mean:

In + To = Into?

Standard Engineer’s Answer:
That depends.

There are certain cases where that equation holds true,
such as when there is motion toward the inside of something.
The drillstring with the new bit was lowered into the hole.

There are other situations where the word In is considered part of the verb phrase, such as:
Turn in, Hand in, Give in, Log in, Tune in, etc.
In such cases, the In and the To remain separate. If they are combined, it would mean something entirely different.

She handed her thesis in to the professor.
She handed her thesis into the professor. (Stuffed it down his throat,

He turned the watch he found in to the drilling superintendent.
He turned the watch he found into the drilling superintendent. (Using his magic

Funny Error of the Day:
The criminal turned himself into the police. (I’m sure he didn’t become
a policeman!)

Middle Ages

April 27, 2011

When referring to the time period between the years 500 and 1500, the epoch of the Middle Ages is capitalized, and that expression takes a plural verb.


The Middle Ages were blessed with some extraordinary painters, mainly depicting religious scenes.

When talking about a person between the ages of 40 and 60, we call that person middle-aged, and that word is hyphenated.

Which reminds me of another funny, true story. My son Daniel once referred to me as being middle-aged, and I took exception to that with great huff and puffery. Then he reasoned with me and said: “Mom, if you live to be twice what you are now, you’ll be doing pretty good. That puts you in the middle now, doesn’t it?”

Little whippersnapper!

Re: Re

April 22, 2011

Another question from the Peanut Gallery:
Ted asks:
“When returning email back and forth with one or a number of individuals on the same subject (otherwise referred to as email tennis), is it correct to keep adding in the subject yet another Re Re……?”

I think the answer is No, Ted. I’ve been involved in a number of games of Email Tag or Email Ping-Pong, as this practice is also called in various sectors. I think Microsoft Office automatically adds another Re: after each volley, but theoretically it shouldn’t. Here’s why.

Another popular Writing Tip of the Day website (now don’t y’all go and leave me!) explains what Re actually means: (from<>)

Re: is used at the top of letters and emails in order to steer the reader to the single most important topic of the message:

Dear Sir,
Re: Your order of 10/3/09

I’ve seen Re: explained as an abbreviation of the words “regarding” or “referencing.”
However, Re is not an abbreviation for anything. Re: means “re.”

Re is an English preposition in use since at least the 18th century. It means “in the matter of, with reference to.” It is a Latin word, the ablative form of the Latin noun “res” meaning “thing” or “affair.” Lawyers use the legal phrase in re when a proceeding is not brought by a person, but has to do with something like probate or a public project like laying out a highway.

So, Ted, if there is more than one Re, it would mean “in the matter of in the matter of,” which would be repetitively redundant. So feel free to lose the extra Re. (Hey, that rhymes!)

Both vs. Each vs. The Two

April 21, 2011

Both means “the one as well as the other,” when the two are considered together.
Each refers to the individual members of a group considered separately.

My bank requires the signatures of both people to cash a check made out to Mr. and Mrs. Perdue.
My bank requires a separate deposit form for each of our accounts.

When do you use “both” and when do you use “the two”?
I ran across an example today where the latter should have been used.

Bad Example:
The difference between both economic forecasts was used to calculate NPV of the pilot project.

The word “both” serves to merge the two forecasts in question or stress their similarity, but that is not the case in this example. Use “the two” when you wish to differentiate them or make a reconciliation or rapprochement.

Corrected Example:
The difference between the two economic forecasts was used to calculate NPV of the pilot project.

Personal Note: Whenever I’m asked whether I want apple pie or pumpkin pie, I always answer “Both.”

Double Negatives

April 20, 2011

Got a question from the Peanut Gallery. Jose writes:
It is correct to say: “I do not have any interest on what is happening on Chicago’s downtown,” or it is two negations in one sentence? Should it be “I do have any interest on what is happening on Chicago’s downtown”?  What I am trying to say is that I do not care what is happening in Chicago’s downtown.

Well, Jose, “I do not have any interest” is OK. It is not a double negative, and it does convey the idea that you don’t care about the topic at all.

“I do not (or don’t) have no interest” — that would be a double negative, and literally it would mean that you do have some interest.

This reminds me of the movie Blazing Saddles where the Mexican guys talk about Sheriff’s badges: “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!” That would be a double negative, not grammatically correct.

It also reminds me of one of the funniest (and most politically and grammatically incorrect) SPE paper titles ever (SPE 38611): “Proppants? We Don’t Need No Stinking Proppants!”

One more little thing about your request, Jose: the correct expression is to have an interest in, not on. I don’t know why; it’s just one of the many vagaries of the English language.

Follow-Up Email:
After receiving the above response, Jose sent me the following thanks:
GREAT!!! You are supper!!! Thanks so much for a nice and clear explanation. I really like your emails every day.

I’m SUPPER?? Apparently Jose is a cannibal, so if my Writing Tips of the Day suddenly stop, you’ll know where to start looking for my bones.

Funniest Oilfield Name Ever:

Woollybutt field, offshore Western Australia, operated by ENI.
Did you know it is also the name of a native Aussie eucalyptus tree with fibrous bark?

The Five C’s of Writing – Part 5: Coherence

April 17, 2011

Coherence, the Fifth C of Writing, is the golden thread that ties all the parts together into a unified whole. It has to do with continuity and flow, with ample connections among the ideas and markers like signposts along the path to Clarity.

Much of the writing I have the privilege of fixing is basically a mass of bullet points. For some reason, that’s how engineers think. When they try to tie multiple bandoliers of bullets together to show how they are all related to the same overall system, they often end up being wordy.

Webster defines coherence as “systematic or logical connection or consistency, an integration of diverse elements or relationships.”

The Grumpy Grammarian says: “It’s helpful to have a logical mind, one capable of arranging ideas so that one point leads logically to the next. If closely related ideas are kept together, a coherent flow of thought will evolve all by itself.”

Effective writing has all five attributes: Coherence, Control, Conciseness, Correctness, and Clarity – all balanced and not overdone so that it looks easy. Of course, it’s not easy; if it were, I wouldn’t have a job. Ideally, the reader thinks it was easy because it flows so smoothly that reading and understanding it is effortless. “It’s like the performance of a skilled athlete or artist,” the Grammar Curmudgeon says. “We appreciate their performance partly because we know that what they are doing requires hard work, but it is done so well that the work doesn’t show.”

With lots of practice, we can become a skilled writing athlete. With the basic skills of grammar and organization under our belts, our flow of thoughts onto the page becomes automatic, even cathartic. Get in the zone and “Be the ball(point pen).” Once the skills have been mastered, then you can focus on becoming the virtuoso, the artist who, with a turn of phrase, a word picture, and a dash of humor, can craft a masterpiece that people will actually enjoy reading.

Today, that’s a rarity; so let’s just work on Clarity. (Hey, that rhymes!)

The Five C’s of Writing – Part 4: Control

April 15, 2011

 I like to tell the people that I mentor (some of which are bona fide mental cases):

“You can control only three things in life:

1) what you think,

2) what you say, and

3) what you do.”

Perhaps a subset of #2 above is “what you write.” You have complete control over this, but sometimes writers don’t exercise enough control in their writing. Control requires discipline and organization, knowing the rules and following them, and confining your thinking to that claustrophobic region inside the proverbial box.

When teaching beginning writers control, professors will attempt to shoehorn young people into the straightjacket approach of using an outline, thesis and topic sentences, one idea per paragraph, etc. Personally, I hate outlines – unless I’m compiling the various pieces of a long document from multiple parties. Then it is an essential cat herding control mechanism as useful as a whip and chair (which sometimes I wish I had.)

If I’m writing my own article or paper, I prefer to lump whatever content I have amassed under a few broad subheads. Then I divide and conquer, organizing each section into a coherent, self-contained piece that has a reasonable flow to it. Then I tie the pieces together with some verbiage that makes a nice transition between the sections or their parts (first, second, third), rearranging the order, if necessary. Then I write the ending, then the introduction. I find this method works pretty well, but then I’ve been doing it professionally for decades. Maybe you would like a straightjacket – or need one.

The Grumpy Grammarian says: “One reason we lose control is that we tend to think about all facets of our topic at once. Even if we don’t use a formal outline, we need to group our thoughts into smaller chunks so that we’re focused on related ideas. Our focus means that the reader will focus as well, without distraction, especially if we give the right clues. The clues to organization … should somehow signal to the reader what idea we’re developing (focusing on) at any given point.”

Here is a short list of things we can control in our writing:

Structure – the order can be inverted pyramid like a newspaper story (5 W’s in the lead paragraph), or it can be an Executive Summary followed by the various technical discipline details.

Style – pick a Style Guide (SPE, AP) and use it consistently throughout the paper.

Tone – can be conversational or professional or even hoity-toity if one deems proper.

Point of view – this is a pet peeve of mine when editing friends’ novels. They’ll change from omniscient to the point of view of one character to that of another several times.

Pace – sentence and paragraph length can be very short for a quick read, or can bog down in lengthy explanations (which you may want to do if befuddlement is your purpose.)

Content – controlling what information you include can help you stay on topic and on target.


 Funny True Story: I was driving to work one morning in the late 1990’s when I saw a sign on the side of the road that said “MENTAL REPROGRAMMING” — with a local phone number. I knew several people who I thought should avail themselves of such a useful service, so I stopped the car, got out, yanked the bright orange sign with black letters out of the ground, and threw it in the trunk of my car. I carried it up to my office (amid many quizzical looks from coworkers) and stashed it in the narrow space between the side of the desk and the wall.

One day I had had enough with one of my colleagues, so I pulled out that sign and dialed the number. “We’re sorry, but the number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service. Please check the number and dial again.”

I sure hope that my pulling that sign out of the ground wasn’t the reason they went out of business.

The Five C’s of Writing – Part 3: Conciseness

April 14, 2011

Imagine for a minute that you are an editor for Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Your job is to take a full-length novel and capture the entire plot along with the author’s voice, style, and “essence” in roughly one-fourth of the original word count. You would be a master of the Third C of Writing, Conciseness.

In public speaking, one is advised to “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, then tell ’em, and then tell ’em what you told ’em.” There is no need to do that with writing, because you can reread it right away if you don’t get it, and you can read it again later if you forget it. Rather than writing your idea three different ways hoping that the reader will understand at least one of them, it is better to revise and rewrite one idea more concisely, selecting the best possible way to express the thought.

Conciseness is the absence of wordiness and verbal clutter, which can take the form of redundancy, repetition, digressions, distractions, and the use of multiple words when a single, well chosen word will do. Direct and focused writing is the path to the Holy Grail of Clarity.

The Grammar Curmudgeon says: “While we must support our ideas with relevant details and examples, while we sometimes need explanations to clarify concepts, we must exercise verbal economy.” Whereas students strive to pad their writing to fill the two pages required by the teacher, business writers should do the opposite, tightening their verbiage so it is less verbose.
I call it “achieving a high beef to baloney ratio.”

“When reviewing their own work, some writers make a separate editorial pass exclusively for the purpose of removing deadwood,” the Grammar Curmudgeon says.
I call this “pruning,” and my pruning shears of choice are red pens.

The Aggie Horticulture website has this to say about pruning:
“Proper pruning enhances the beauty of almost any landscape tree and shrub…. pruning is the removal or reduction of certain plant parts that are not required, that are no longer effective, or that are of no use to the plant. It is done to supply additional energy for the development of flowers, fruits, and limbs that remain on the plant.”

Keep this metaphor in mind as you make that editorial pass to remove your verbal deadwood to attain Conciseness.


I have a rubber stamp I acquired back in the Cretaceous when I was in college:

If you can’t baffle them with brilliance, befuddle them with BS.