Archive for July, 2012

Serial Comma Reprise

July 31, 2012

After explaining about the Harvard Comma in my last Tip of the Day, I got a question from the Peanut Gallery. Aaron from Doha, Qatar, wrote:

“I always learned that if you had more than three items, the comma before ‘and’ is a must, and if only three items then it is optional.
Is this an incorrect teaching?”

I did a little more research, and the Rule of Thumb for omitting the serial comma before “and” goes like this:
The serial comma is unnecessary in a simple list of three items.
The classic example used is: red, white and blue.

By simple, the Rulemakers mean single words, not expressions or clauses. If there is any doubt, definitely include the comma.

Doubtful Example:
He will need a letter of recommendation from his bosses, Joe and Bob. (no serial comma)
He will need a letter of recommendation from his bosses, Joe, and Bob. (serial comma included)

Are Joe and Bob his bosses, or are they two other guys? Without the comma one would surmise that Joe and Bob are the bosses, but with the comma, it would be understood that they are two other guys.

How about this one:
I’m having lunch with my parents, the teacher and the preacher.

Is one of my parents a teacher while the other is a preacher? No comma.

Or am I having lunch with all four of them? If the latter is true, then use the comma after “teacher.”

And in any list longer than three, it makes good sense to use the serial comma because it gives the eye an extra and consistent item separator.

I prefer to use bullets if the list is longer than three, because even with the Harvard comma, it all runs together. The items get more individual consideration with bullets – if you have the space on the page, that is.

Profound Quote of the Day with No Serial Comma:
“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”
– Benjamin Franklin, American statesman, scientist and publisher, 1706-1790


Harvard Comma

July 26, 2012

I got a question from the Peanut Gallery. Natalia from Houston asks:
“Is there any case where a comma is used before ‘and’?

X, Y, and Z?   or
X, Y and Z?”

This particular comma is called the “serial comma.” It is also referred to as the Harvard comma or the Oxford comma. It is the comma that comes immediately before a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor) that precedes the final item in a list of three or more items in a series.

There are two schools of thought on this particular type of comma:

1)      Obviously, the folks at Harvard and Oxford like to include it. It mimics the voice pauses when speaking the sentence. It can also resolve ambiguity.
2)      The AP Stylebook advises against it, considering it redundant because the conjunction “and” separates the last two items in the series. Omitting it also takes up less space in a line of text.

I follow the SPE Style Guide, which says to use the serial comma before “and.”

Core Labs measured the porosity, permeability, and water saturation of each core plug.

Tomorrow, we’ll cover some examples of how ambiguity can be caused by both leaving the serial comma in and by taking it out

Double Negatives

July 24, 2012

As an avowed optimist, I always prefer a positive to a double negative.

I feel good.  (positive)
I don’t feel bad. (double negative)

In some languages double negatives cancel each other out to make a positive, and in other languages the double negative is used
for emphasis.

Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges! (Blazing Saddles movie)
No tengo nadie. (Spanish for: I ain’t got nobody.) (Santana song)

In English, we don’t use what is called “negative concord” like Spanish and French do, where they run the negative throughout the sentence. We use only one negative per sentence. See how the one negative moves along this sentence, while the other three positions are positive.

I haven’t ever taken anything from anyone.
I have never taken anything from anyone.
I have taken nothing from anyone.
I have taken things from nobody.

If you used all four negatives, you wouldn’t know if I was a  thief or not because you’d be so confused.

Bad Example:
I haven’t never taken nothing from nobody.

OK, so what does the following sentence mean?

I do not disagree.

That must mean that you agree.

How about this sentence?

I couldn’t disagree more.

If you change the two negatives to a positive, you would end up with “I could agree more,” but that’s not what the author meant. The author is disagreeing in a superlative way. So say that.

I disagree completely.

Many times using a double negative makes you sound uneducated.

We don’t need no education. (Pink Floyd song)

Hence, if you want to be clear and sound educated, like most business writers do, avoid double negatives. Be positive!

Profound Quote of the Day:
“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.”
Benjamin Franklin, American statesman, scientist and publisher, 1706-1790

Sit, Set, Sat

July 21, 2012

Remember my Tip of the Day about Lie vs. Lay? The same rule about transitive and intransitive verbs applies to Sit and Set.

Sit is a verb that means to rest on your butt. It is an intransitive verb, which means it does not take a direct object. In other words, you can sit, you can tell your dog to sit, but you cannot sit a thing down. The past tense of Sit is Sat.

Set is a verb that means to put or to place. It is a transitive verb, which means it takes a direct object. In other words, you can set
something on the table, you can set a table, but you cannot set down. You can set yourself down, but then “yourself” would be the direct object. Set is also the past tense of Set.

Therefore, in the Ballad of Jed Clampett, theme song for the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies, there is a grammatical mistake
when they get to the end and say:

“Set a spell. Take your shoes off. Y’all come back now, hear?”

Jed and Granny want you to rest on your butt on their front porch in the rocking chair, so “sit a spell” would be the correct term.

Of course, there are a whole bunch of other meanings for Set that might confuse you.
The sun sets in the west.
That’s an intransitive verb form because the sun is doing it all by itself, and there is no direct object in the sentence.

Here’s another one:
It takes about an hour for Jell-O to set in the refrigerator.
Here “set” means “congeal,” another intransitive usage.

Fun Fact:
Did you know that Jell-O was invented in my home town of LeRoy, NY? When the town celebrated the 100th anniversary of Jell-O, my mom, who worked part-time as a docent at the Jell-O Museum on Main Street, sent me the official Jell-O Jubilee T-shirt. On it, in colorful Jell-O jiggler letters, was the following:

100 Years Old, and Still Jiggling

I do not wear this T-shirt. While I can jiggle with the best of them, I’m just past halfway there, age-wise. I’ve decided to give the
shirt to the first FOJ = Friend of Jeanne who makes it to 100 years old. The race is on!

Profound Quote of the Day:
“Be careful what you set your heart upon, for it will surely be yours.”
– James A. Baldwin, American author, 1924-1987

Pulitzers Not Awarded

July 21, 2012

Happy 400th Tip of the Day!
I never dreamed I would have 400 writing tips to  share with my 220+ work colleagues and the vast Peanut Gallery in cyberspace. My  WordPress blog where I store my Tip of the Day archives (<Http://>)
has had more than 70,000 hits in only 2.5 years. It seems the most popular search term is “analysis vs. analyses.”

Well, to celebrate this milestone, I thought I’d hop up on my soapbox and opine a bit.

This year, there were no Pulitzer Prizes awarded in the categories of Fiction or Editorial Writing, although there were three finalists in each category. Note that there were no Fiction prizes awarded ten other years since 1917, and there were no Editorial Writing prizes awarded eight other years during that same time.

First, let’s examine the official criteria:
Editorial Writing – “… clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction….”
Fiction – “… distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life….”

I can understand how perhaps the Fiction prize entries may have included novels about Americana, but the writing was not very distinguished, or alternatively, a very distinguished writing style, but the subject was not about American life.

What is the definition of distinguished? Merriam-Webster says: “marked by eminence, distinction, or excellence,” with distinction referring to a different class, special honor, superiority, or having a worthiness that sets one apart.

So what this tells me is that today’s fiction writers have not reached a level of excellence in their writing, nor have they found a way to distinguish their novels from the popular paperback drivel that today’s readers buy and today’s publishers choose to print for profit. I fear that the current publishing market driven by supply and demand is squelching truly distinguished writing – in spite of the fact that anyone with a computer and Wi-Fi can be a fiction writer online. How sad!

But what really disturbs me is the lack of an Editorial Writing prize. The very purpose of an editorial is to make your points clearly and with sound reasoning for the purpose of guiding public opinion. First you think; then you write. Then you fix your writing so the readers think the same thing that you think after they read it. If an Op-Ed columnist can’t do that effectively, better get another job!

Yet, is this not what we do in business writing? We have a purpose, and we clearly make our points so that management approves what we propose. Clarity and sound reasoning win every time – if there’s money in the budget to do it, of course.

What you write and how you write it can result in winning the big prize, whether that’s a Pulitzer, a bigger slice of next year’s budget pie, or the opportunity to bid on blocks in a foreign licensing round.

And I’ll continue to help you craft your winning PetroPulitzer entry. Here’s to the next 400 Writing Style Tips of the Day!

Profound Quote of the Day:
“Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”
– Joseph Pulitzer, American publisher, 1847-1911

Relative Clauses

July 21, 2012

Q: What is a relative clause?
A1: One of Santa’s cousins, nieces, or nephews.
A2: A group of words to add more information to a sentence without starting a separate sentence that repeats some of the same

Separate Sentence Example:
We plan to repair the pump. The pump failed yesterday.

Combined Sentence with Relative Clause Example:
We plan to repair the pump that failed yesterday.

In the latter sentence, the relative clause is “that failed yesterday” and it starts with the relative pronoun “that,” which takes the place of the redundant “the pump.” Other common relative pronouns are: Who, Which, Whose, and Whom.

The pump will be repaired by a contractor who knows how to do it.
The contractor can do it in one hour, which is very fast.
He knows whose parts work best for these pumps.
This contractor is someone whom I once met on an airplane.

There are two kinds of relative clauses: Defining and Non-Defining. Some grammar gurus call them “Restrictive and Non-Restrictive,” and the AP Style Guide refers to them as “Essential and Non-Essential” clauses.

Anyway, the Defining / Essential / Restrictive relative clauses provide additional information that cannot be left out of the sentence without changing its meaning.

The Non-Defining / Non-Essential / Non-Restrictive relative clauses provide additional information in the sentence, but the
sentence can stand on its own without that clause.

Essential Example:
Do you know a contractor who is good at fixing pumps?  (won’t work without the clause)

Non-Essential Example:
The contractor, whom I met on an airplane, can fix pumps in one hour.
The contractor can fix pumps in one hour.  (works just fine without the clause)

Here’s the Rule of Thumb for punctuating sentences with relative clauses:
Essential clauses do not need a comma; Non-Essential clauses need commas.

Essential Example:
Technical writers who do not proofread their emails should be spanked.
(With no commas, this means only the ones who don’t proofread first should be spanked.)

Non-Essential Example:
Technical writers, who do not proofread their emails, should be spanked.
(With commas, this means all technical writers, who, by the way, happen to send emails without proofreading them first, should be spanked.)

So you see, commas can make a big difference in determining what information is essential and what isn’t in a sentence!


July 13, 2012

I got another question from the Peanut Gallery today.

Don in Houston asks:

“Which is preferred in formal documents, the ampersand symbol (&) or the word “and”?

Short Answer:  Use “and,” not &

Long Answer:

When I was a magazine editor, many oilfield marketing people would post their news stories on the Internet, and you would get gobbledygook like &amp; wherever there was an ampersand (&) in the text, and I would have to fix them all before publishing the story in the magazine. Ampersands do not always translate well in digital form, so if you can get away without using them, that would be preferable to avoid such problems.

Geek Factoid:

The ampersand is used in XML and HTML to introduce an SGML entity, which stands for Standard Government Markup Language. You know when the US government is involved, things are going to get ugly. Well, that’s why this happens.

Therefore, ampersands do not always translate well in digital form, so if you can get away without using them, that would be preferable to avoid such problems.

Exceptions to the Rule:

•       E&P

•       R&D

•       BS&W

•       Oil & Gas Journal, AT&T and other company names (not Oil and Gas Investor)

•       In tables where space is tight

Ampersands are really good to use in passwords, too.
Typo of the Day:  Preformed instead of Performed
Funny Example:

The petrophysical analysis was then preformed.

I guess that means they wrote the report before they actually looked at the cores and logs.

Profound Quote of the Day:

“Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.”

– Samuel Johnson, English author, 1709-1784


At the Same Time

July 13, 2012

There are several words (adjectives) that mean that things are happening at the same time.

Simultaneous means things are existing or occurring at exactly the same time in a moment of time.


The simultaneous radio broadcast made it appear as if the fireworks were choreographed to the music.

Synchronous implies exact correspondence in time as well as periodic intervals.


here was one kid at summer camp who could not beat a drum in a synchronous manner with the others around the campfire.

Concurrent means operating in parallel at the same time, usually under separate authority.


he City of Houston, Harris County, State of Texas, and US Federal government have concurrent jurisdiction over this area.

Contemporary and contemporaneous both mean during the same time, but contemporary usually refers to people, while contemporaneous refers to events. Both terms denote a period of years, rather than shorter time periods.


Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower were contemporary statesmen in the UK and US, respectively.

A rise in oil prices is often contemporaneous with oil company stock prices increasing.

Coincident means two events happened at the same time, but did not have a cause and effect relationship.


Global warming and the rise in greenhouse gases are coincident, since global warming also happened before the industrial age.

Profound Quote of the Day:

“No philosopher understands his predecessors until he has re-thought their thought in his own contemporary terms.”

– Peter Frederick Strawson, English philosopher and Oxford professor, 1919-2006


In vs. At

July 13, 2012

I got a question today from the Peanut Gallery.

Mostafa in Oman asks:

What is the difference between saying:

•       It is in Oman


•       It is at Oman?”

Those pesky little prepositions with definitions a mile long in the dictionary!
To answer your question, Mostafa, we’ll need to use a little geometry.

Rule of Thumb:  If it’s a point, use “at;” if it’s an area, use “in.”

So for Oman, since it is a whole country that covers a large area, you would say: “It is in Oman.”

Examples of Points in Location and Time (use “at”):

We set the casing at 2,956 ft at 2:30 a.m.

I’ll meet you at the bank at noon.

Examples of Areas in Location and Time (use “in”):

The casing will arrive in Terrebonne Parish in the morning.

I arrived in Houston (big city, 656 sq miles) in the sweltering summer of 1980.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, including the expression “at night.”

And you could miss somebody entirely if you say “at the bank” instead of “in the bank,” because he will wait outside the front door after you have already gone in to sit down in the air conditioning.

Here’s another pesky preposition question:

Is a certain restaurant located at Main Street, on Main Street, or in Main Street?

Generally, one will use “at” when referring to crossroads, which follows the geometry rule of thumb, because the intersection of two lines is a point.


The office is located at Main Street and Elm.

It seems the Brits refer to addresses as being in Main Street, whereas Americans prefer on Main Street.


Do you know the muffin man who lives in Drury Lane? (British children’s song, 1820)

I prefer addresses being on a certain street, whereas the vehicles are in the street.

In other words, the muffin man would live on Drury Lane, but his MuffinMobile might be in Drury Lane.

Profound Quote of the Day:

“There’s less critical thinking going on in this country on a Main Street level – forget about the media – than ever before. We’ve never needed people to think more critically than now, and they’ve taken a big nap.”

– Alec Baldwin, American actor, b. 1958


Particularly vs. In Particular

July 13, 2012

“In particular” is an idiomatic expression that means “in distinction from others” or “specifically.” This expression usually refers to nouns. It can be used in many places in a sentence, and is set apart by a comma when it occurs at the beginning of a sentence or phrase.


In particular, I like their mango tres leches dessert.

I like their desserts; in particular, the mango tres leches.

I like their desserts, the mango tres leches in particular.

“Particularly” means “in detail” or “to an unusual degree.” It is an adverb, and as such it can be used to modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb, not nouns. It is not set off by a comma from the rest of the sentence.


I particularly like their mango tres leches dessert.  (modifies the verb “like”)

Their mango tres leches dessert is particularly good.  (modifies the adjective “good”)

Their mango tres leches dessert tends to run out particularly quickly.  (modifies the adverb “quickly”)

Two questions now arise:

Q1: What exactly is tres leches?  (Pronounced: trace LAY-chayz)

A1: Tres leches is Spanish for “three milks.” This dessert is a dense, white sponge cake that has soaked up whole milk, sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk, and it is topped with whipped cream. In the case of mango tres leches, there is some mango juice in the whipped cream and some finely chopped mango bits on top of that.

Q2: Where can I get me some of that??

A2: Cantina Laredo, on Wilcrest south of Westheimer, Houston, Texas. It’s delightful!

Funny Quote of the Day:

“Don’t tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly don’t tell them where they know the fish.”

– Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens), American author and humorist, 1835-1910