Style Watch: Short Cuts towards Better Presentation Editing


Style Watch I: Quotation Marks: Two Rules

Quotation marks have two purposes: quotations and mentions. Quotations are what someone actually, really said:

“She jumped from the bridge,” the pedestrian said.

A mention, by contrast, is the use of a word where you want to indicate that the word you’re using is itself important in some way:

Bronte uses the word “badly” many times in her first three pages.

In that sentence “badly” is in quotation marks because I want to point at it as a kind of exhibit. It is specifically THAT word I’m talking about. Mentions are used frequently when writing about the words other people use. (Notice that if you leave the quotation marks out you actually get a different meaning altogether: Bronte uses the word badly many times in her first three pages—which says that Bronte didn’t use the word well, while the first version says only that she used a particular word—the word “badly”—many times.)

The Two Rules:

RULE 1: When quoting someone’s actual words (the first use above), all punctuation falls INSIDE the quotation marks, while with mentions the convention is almost the opposite: although commas and periods (and only commas and periods) fall INSIDE the marks (and are thus the same for both cases), everything else is outside.

Quotation: “Did she jump from the bridge?” he asked.

Mention: He used the words “quickly,” “badly,” and “salt.” And (with a question mark): Did he use the word “quickly”?

RULE 2: When you have a quotation within a quotation, you use double quotes on the outside, and single quotes on the inside (to keep readers from getting the layers of quotation confused).

Sally asked, “Did Lawrence use the word ‘quickly’?”

And that’s it—except for one last thing about books printed outside the USA: the convention for quotation marks in British English is the reverse of American English. Wherever Americans use double quotation marks, the British use single, and wherever we use single, they use double. And they put ALL punctuation for mentions outside of any quotation marks (unlike Americans, who put commas and periods inside, everything else outside—as I showed you above).


Style-Watch II: Homophones, Possessives, and Contractions

I. Homophones: When Words Sound Alike But Are Spelled Differently

A set of spelling errors which computers can’t catch, and which many human beings don’t do very well with either, comes from words which sound alike but are spelled differently: lead, the metal, and led the verb; or meat from animals, and meet as in a meeting. For many of these words, traditionally called homophones, all you can do is learn which ones you have trouble with, and then make sure you always check.

But the most frequent mistakes of this sort—and the ones readers get most upset about—are not very many. There are in fact only five small sets of these words:


Because these words are so few, learning them is easy, and because we use them over and over again, spelling them correctly will solve 90% of the whole homophone problem. Even better, the spelling for all of these words is absolutely regular—as long as you know the rules.

Our problems with these words have to do with contractions—those words we make in which we “contract” two words into one by leaving out one or more letters. You can, of course, just memorize when to use each of these different forms, but you can also learn the contraction rule—which, surprisingly, is perfectly regular: to indicate that a letter is missing, contractions are ALWAYS spelled with an apostrophe:

It is = It’s.

They are = They’re.

You are = You’re.

Who is = Who’s

That rule is regular, yet people still get confused because English (confusingly!) also uses apostrophes to show possession. But there, too, the rule for showing possession is actually highly regular: for standard nouns, show possession by adding an apostrophe and an “s” (if the noun already ends in “s,” you can also simply add an apostrophe all by itself):

Raoul’s house. Sandra’s job. The boss’s cat (or, The boss’

So far, so good. Use apostrophes 1) for contractions, and 2) to show possession.

Now, though, for the complication: English also has an important group of words which sound just like common contractions, and which in fact indicate possession, but which NEVER take apostrophes. Those words are the possessive pronouns, those little words like his, her, your and its.

Now in fact, the spelling of pronouns is also absolutely regular. But where nouns always take apostrophes to show possession, pronouns never do:

His house (no apostrophe). Her job (no apostrophe). Our phone
(no apostrophe).

With most possessive pronouns, we have no problem. Nobody misspells “his” by adding an apostrophe: “hi’s.” Interestingly, the trouble comes only with just four words: “it” “they” “you” and “who.” For even though these are just as regular as “he” and “she” in their possessive forms, each happens to sound exactly like one of the contractions, and as a result people get confused:

The paint had lost its brightness (possessive, no apostrophe).
It’s not a matter for debate (contraction of “it is”—apostrophe).

The animals retained their winter coats (possessive, no apostrophe).
He knows that they’re going (contraction of “they are”—apostrophe).

Whose house is that? (possessive, no apostrophe).
Who’s going to put the cat out? (contraction of “who is”—apostrophe).

In sum, learn to distinguish contractions from possessive pronouns, and you’ve got it: if the word is a contraction, use an apostrophe. If it is a pronoun showing possession, don’t.

Last But Not Least Department

That explains homophonic possessives and contractions; there remain two other cases of frequently mixed-up sound-alikes: to/too/two, and there/they’re/their. These words occur very frequently in written English, but there are only six of them.


“Two” is for the number (think of the “tw” in “twin.”)

He owns two pairs of shoes.

“Too” means “also” (“Too” has the normal “o,” and “also”
another “o.”)

Having eaten one taco, Alice ate another one, too.

“To” is for anything else, usually with verbs, or to show

To love is to live; they all went to the seashore.


“Their” is the possessive pronoun:

That is their house.

“They’re” is the contraction:

They’re leaving today.

“There” indicates location, or calls attention to things:

Put the book there.

There are four rules to remember about apostrophes.

And that’s it.

Style-Watch III: Plurals

Along with possessives and contractions, many writers also get confused about one last group of words: plurals. For most English words, we show the plural by adding either a simple “s,” or, if the word already ends in “s”(or even with an “s”-like sound), with an “es.”

one dog => two dogs; one mess => two messes; one dish => two dishes.

But although both plurals and possessives generally involve adding an “s,” and although they, too, sound alike when pronounced, you can always keep them straight by remembering that possessive nouns ALWAYS have apostrophes, and simple plurals NEVER do:

The cow’s feed was in the barn. (possessive, with apostrophe)
The cows wandered in the field. (plural, NO apostrophe)

Even when the plural form is irregular, English still NEVER uses an apostrophe: we say “one ox,” but “two oxen,” or “one mouse,” but “two mice”—no apostrophes.

Of course, we may also want to form a plural possessive, but again, that’s perfectly regular: to the basic plural, we add both an apostrophe and an “s”:

The cows’s feedbags . The mice’s nest. The oxen’s combined strength.

(When the plural form already ends in “s,” you may also show possession just by adding an apostrophe all by itself: either The cows’s feedbags, or The cows’ feedbags).

To sum up then:

1. Contractions ALWAYS require apostrophes, to indicate that one or more letters have ALWAYS been left out:

it is => it’s
they are => they’re
who is => who’s
they have => they’ve
she will => she’ll

2. Nouns like “William,” or “essay,” or “paper” ALWAYS show possession by use of apostrophes: William’s; essay’s; paper’s.

3. But possessive pronouns NEVER use apostrophes, since they NEVER leave a letter out: his, its, their, your, whose.

4. English NEVER uses apostrophes to form the simple plural: many cows; several books; a network of computers.



Style-Watch IV: Passives

Like many languages, English has both an Active and a Passive voice. This means that for many sentences, a writer can use one of two different forms, each of which has much the same meaning:

1. The student wrote the paper.

2. The paper was written by the student.

The first of these sentences is active, the second passive. The difference? Mainly a matter of emphasis. Because the first phrase of a sentence often seems to be the “focus” of a thought, the active form of this sentence gives emphasis to “The student,” while the passive form gives emphasis to “The paper.” Both forms are “correct,” and both can be useful.

At the same time, many readers and writers have felt that passive constructions—especially in large numbers—are inherently less interesting to read than are active ones. Consider that most sentences have essentially three elements: first, a noun describing the “actor” involved in some action (in the sentences above, the actor is “The student”—the one who did something); second, a verb which describes what that actor does (here that’s “wrote”); and third, another noun describing the object of the action—the person or thing to which or upon which the action is performed (“the paper”—the thing that got written).

But if those are the three elements most important to describing most actions, many people have felt that writers should emphasize the actors of their sentences, because the agents of any given action have a special importance. Since active sentences put actors (also called “agents”) first, in the most emphatic position in the sentence, a decision to give emphasis to actors would require that you keep to active forms.

So active sentences tend to emphasize agents, and passive sentences tend to de-emphasize them. In addition, passives do two other things which many readers don’t like. First, they add words. Notice that sentence 2) above has two more words than 1). That’s because passives require both an auxiliary verb (“was” in this case) and a “by” to identify the agent phrase. And since more words with no extra meaning generally means more work for a reader to do, the result (again) is less liveliness in the writing.

Second, passives allow a writer not only to change the primary focus of a sentence from the actor to the object, but also to drop one of the key elements—the actor—altogether. Note that sentence 2) above—The paper was written by the student—can be shortened by removing its last phrase: by the student. Take that phrase away, and even though the sentence now gives you less information, it still is perfectly proper English:

3. The paper was written.

(Notice that you can’t remove the actor from the active form shown in sentence 1: “Wrote the paper” is not a complete thought—it makes no sense by itself.)

And so what? As already suggested, to describe any event to someone, you can give various kinds of information, but the three most central elements are usually the actor (the one who does something), the object (the thing being acted upon), and the verb (the action taken). When you leave one of this Big Three out, you also leave a sort of logical hole in your description. In the passive sentence The paper was written, the author of the sentence has left out one of the Big Three: the actor, or who it was that did the writing.

To be sure, as readers we will assume that “someone” did the writing—it could hardly happen by itself. But an unexpressed “someone” is a whole lot less specific, and thus less lively, than a more definite description. Of course, if the author didn’t know who did the writing, then she or he couldn’t have supplied an actor in the first place, and maybe that’s the reason for the passive. But often we DO know who the actor was, and yet we use a passive without an actor anyway, and thereby avoid giving readers an important part of the picture.

In sum, passives can lead to less lively, more difficult to read writing for three reasons: first, because a passive construction may make the sense of a sentence less vivid by moving the actor away from its normal, emphatic position; second, because it adds unnecessary words; and third, because it may even lead you to drop out any mention of the actor altogether.

Should you then never use the passive voice? Some teachers have said so, but that seems pretty drastic. What happens when in fact you don’t want to emphasize the actor, but the object instead? At that point the passive may be the best choice. So rather than avoiding the passive altogether, a better rule would suggest that writers should first learn to recognize passives, and then choose to retain them as passive constructions only when it’s clear that an active form would somehow not work as well or better. If you have a good reason to use the passive, then do it. If you don’t, use the active.



Style-Watch V: Spelling

Spelling makes a BIG difference to readers—right up there with sentence fragments and lack of subject-verb agreement as errors to be shocked by. That’s unfortunate, since English spelling is more complicated than that of any other European language. Most spelling errors, in fact, arise from our spelling’s having been established some 4 to 6 centuries ago, while the way we pronounce words has changed significantly ever since. Nowadays, for example, we have “silent” letters like the “k,” “g” and “h” in the word “knight.” In the 1390’s, however, those letters were all pronounced—even the “k.”

But the biggest problem for most spellers isn’t that group of weird words (“knight,” “night,” “knife,” “comb,” “plumber”) with extra letters. English doesn’t have all that many of them, and most of us learn them in grade school. Rather, the words that cause us the greatest problem are those like “adequate,” “separate,” “capable,” and “dependence.” In each, the same thing leads to the trouble: many of their vowels sound exactly alike, even though they are spelled differently, and we thus have trouble knowing whether to spell those vowel sounds with a’s, i’s or e’s.

It turns out that that’s a problem only because English long ago developed a pronunciation rule that basically says: “Vowels in un-stressed syllables, however they are spelled, and however they might be pronounced if they were stressed, will tend to be pronounced exactly alike, with a sound like the vowel in ‘but.’“

That’s a little technical, but what it boils down to is that English has many, many words in which different vowels—particularly a’s, i’s and e’s—sound exactly alike, rhyming with the vowel sound in “but.” Notice, for example, that the “a” in “instance” is pronounced exactly the same as the third “e” in “dependence.” Similarly, in “legible” and “capable,” though the second and third syllables of each are pronounced exactly alike (and even mean the same thing), nevertheless they are spelled “-ible” in one word, and “-able” in the other. Given this disparity between sound and spelling, it is hardly surprising that a whole lot of intelligent people do not spell well. It would seem that the spelling of many words in English simply must be memorized.

But could one, in fact, learn to manage this problem without memorizing huge lists of words? The answer is a qualified yes, provided that those who have this problem work at it. The following suggestions should help:

• First, poor spellers must learn to recognize the special trouble zone of unstressed syllables. Especially, they must watch out for any word with syllables like “-ance” / “-ence”, or “-able” / “-ible.”

• Second, try pronouncing these words aloud—stressing ALL their syllables as you go, giving each vowel its full sound. If you stress every syllable in this way, you may hear differences between their vowel sounds. (Though you also may not!)

• Third, once you’ve learned the trouble zones, you need to get into the habit of using a dictionary to check those words that you now recognize may be misspelled.

• Fourth, pay attention to your spell check program. Be sure it is switched ON. It won’t catch every error, but for those it does find, it will give you suggestions as to how the word should be spelled.

None of that is new advice—and it may seem like a giant pain—especially the third one about the dictionary. But you can help yourself by making it easy to look those words up. First, GET a dictionary if you don’t already have one! Make it a readable one, with decent print. Then, put your dictionary on your desk! Open it, even. That way you won’t have to cross the room. It’ll be ready when you need it.

Of course, people also misspell words other than the sort described here. Homophones, too, create problems (see Style-Watch II and III above).


Style-Watch VI: Varying Sentences

Simple English sentences usually have three parts: a Subject, a Verb, and a Complement (something that “completes” the verb): The dog [Subject] bit [Verb] the man [Complement]. These sentences—which are sometimes referred to as “SVC” constructions—are the building-blocks of English prose, and English is full of them.

At the same time, because simple SVC constructions are so common, and because they all tend to have a similar rhythm, your prose can seem repetitive and “choppy” when you put a series of simple SVC sentences end to end. So you will want to vary your sentence structures.

Simple SVC sentences can be varied in two ways. First, they can be embellished with additions:

Simple SVC:

The dog bit the man.
Law students argue enthusiastically.
The president ran for re-election.

Simple SVC Sentences varied by additions:

The old, gray dog bit the man with all the strength she had.
The dog bit the man when she saw him taking her food.
Law students headed for litigation careers argue enthusiastically.
The president, his ratings falling daily, ran hard for re-election.

Even those sentences, however, because they keep that same basic underlying structure of Subject...Verb...Complement...,” may still create a repetitive rhythm. So you can also vary your sentences by beginning them with something other than the subject:

Using all the strength she had, the dog bit the man.
Understandably, when the dog saw the man taking her food, she bit him.
Without a doubt, law students headed for litigation careers argue

Another benefit from making changes like this, by the way, is that you will also make your writing more interesting to read by offering your readers new bits of detail.