Onesies and Twosies—getting plurals right

rogersgeorge on February 28th, 2010

Not just any old plurals, either. You know all about ordinary plurals. Several words tend to trip up the educated (read pretentious), especially those in the upper echelons of business.

Incident—an event, especially if it’s remarkable in some way. This word takes a perfectly ordinary plural: “incidents.” Do not burden your listener (or reader) with the Latinized and incorrect “incidences.”

Process—another one the boss lies to Latinize. The plural is perfectly ordinary: processes (‘pra-sess-uz), not procesese, or procesees (pra-sess-‘eeze), or however you spell it.

Phenomena— This is the plural! The singular is “phenomenon.”

Data—neither a robot nor a singular. The singular is datum. This distinction is disappearing, and you see it mainly in scientific literature, but figure on maintaining the distinction in any context where you need to refer to a single datum.

Some words tell you whether to use the singular or plural. “Every,” for example, always refers to a singular. I found this one in the wild: “…has crossed every t’s and dotted every i’s…” I leave the fixing of that one as an exercise for the reader.

Got any pet peeve plurals of your own? Do the curmudgeonly thing and comment.

P.S. The title of this post is an expression used in purchasing departments, referring to the purchase of small numbers of items rather than large lots.

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Side by side or parallel?

rogersgeorge on February 20th, 2010

A lot of times we write about two things at once. That’s why we have “and.” Here’s a little trick that will make your writing more logical when you write about two things.

When you have two of something, they should be of the same grammatical type. We call this parallelism.

Here’s an example of how not to do it. The sentence below has three pairs, and one of them is wrong. Can you spot all three and identify the wrong one?

“Injuries and illness bring pain and suffering, as well as causing economic loss to the company.”

Got it? The two pairs of nouns are easy to spot. Injuries and illness, pain and suffering. We also have a pair of verbs, but one is an indicative (bring), and the other is a present participle (causing)! The horror! Writers miss this because they want to sound sophisticated by not using plain old “and,” but but the big, long, cumbersome, usually unnecessary “as well as.” Put “and” in there and suddenly “causing” is obviously wrong. It should be “cause.” Now the two verbs are parallel.  Here’s the improved sentence, nice and clean:

“Injuries and illness bring pain and suffering, and cause economic loss to the company.”

Don’t injure your writing by messing up your parallelism. Got any examples of your own? Share in the comments.

Redundancy is a no-no

rogersgeorge on February 17th, 2010

Redundancy is when you say (write) something twice that needs to be said only once.

The test for redundancy is to remove one of the candidates. Does the meaning change? If no, then you have a redundancy. Redundancies are easy to miss because you have to be paying attention to what you are saying to catch them. Many redundancies are idiomatic, and since we’re used to them, we tend to slide over them without close attention.

Here’s an easy one: “Let’s do it over again.” —You don’t need both “over” and “again.” Remove either word and you have not only the same meaning, but a cleaner, tighter (technical terms for “more concise”) sentence.

Here’s a hard one. I found it in a construction specification, a very technical document that needs to be as concise as possible so the reader can get to the content with the least effort.

“…uses a ship-lap joint system that allows for expansion and contraction to occur.”

I’ll spell out the redundancy below, so look at this sentence yourself first, to see if you can discern the redundancy.

Okay, class, time’s up.

Congratulations if you figured out that you can leave out either the “for” or the “to occur.” Go back and read the sentence with each choice left out. See?

Here’s why you have a redundancy. Read slowly—the explanation is a bit technical, but within the realm of basic grammar.

  • “Expansion and contraction” stand comfortably as the object of the preposition “for.”
  • The phrase “to occur”  is an infinitive, which can take a subject, as it does in this sentence. Its subject is  “expansion and contraction.”

So this sentence uses “expansion and contraction” as two things at once. Big no-no. (oops.)

(Delete the infinitive. “To occur” a way of saying “to be.” As a general rule, any time you leave out any form of “to be” from your writing, you produce better writing.)