On Words is designed to help build or renew your grammar skills. This month we look at run-on sentences, overuse of passive voice, usage of semi-colons and more ‘confusables’ – words often mistaken for each other.
With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.
– Abraham Lincoln
You may disagree with Abraham Lincoln, but there are instances where semi-colons serve a good purpose. The University of Toronto writing department advises using a semicolon to join independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, so, yet, for), and gives this example: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Had there been a coordinating conjunction like ‘and’, you would use a comma instead, as in “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Tip: You can use a semi-colon if the two clauses in a sentence can stand as sentences on their own, as in the first example above.
Exception: Semi-colons can also be used occasionally as ‘supercommas’ between items in a complicated list, as in, “I have a three-day layover in Amsterdam; another stop in Geneva; and a third stop in Frankfurt.”
Avoiding run-on sentences
It’s easy to get carried away and try to pack too much information into one sentence. I know, because I’ve done it. Sentences that become bloated by going off in too many directions and containing too many words are a reader turn-off.
Tip: Ensure each sentence expresses only one central idea.
In the following example, check the difference in readability between a, the seemingly endless run-on sentence, and b:
a. The amount of condo construction going on in the city is reaching record highs this year due in large part to the lowest interest rates in decades which make buying a home more affordable.
b. The amount of condo construction going on in the city is reaching record highs this year. This increase is due in part to the lowest interest rates in decades, which make buying a home more affordable.
Overuse of Passive Voice:
A passive voice can be counter-productive in business communications, particularly if you are trying to persuade or motivate. While it’s a gentle, less aggressive way to get your point across, it can be viewed as weak or show a lack of confidence. Simply put, in a sentence written in active voice, the subject performs the action. In a sentence written in passive voice, the subject receives the action.
Active: The cat ate the mouse.
Passive: The mouse was eaten by the cat.
Active: The chairman believes the board should focus on finding new revenue streams.
Passive: It is believed by the chairman that finding new revenue streams should be the focus of the board.
Tip: In addition to using active voice in sentences, it’s always best to lead bullets in a list with an active verb. Note the difference:
• Ensure your sales reps are briefed on the new plan by December 3rd
• Brief your sales reps on the new plan before December 3rd
‘Confusables’: These pairs of words, often confused for each other, were selected from ‘Confusables’ in The New American Dictionary of Difficult Words.
• Basal/basic – Both mean essential or fundamental, but there’s a difference: ‘basal’ describes things required for maintaining life, such as ‘basal organs like the heart’, and texts for beginners (‘basal texts’); ‘basic’ has two scientific meanings, as well as the common reference to something fundamental, as in a ‘basic mistake’.
• Browse/peruse –While ‘browse’ means to read casually, peruse means to read attentively, as in ‘Please peruse the speech to see if you can find errors.’
• Canvas/canvass – Of course, ‘canvas’ with one ‘s’ is the material on which an artist’s paint is distributed. But often, when professionals intend to write ‘canvass’ — both the noun and verb for soliciting opinions or votes — they write it incorrectly with one ‘s’.
• Careen/career – To ‘careen’ is to tip to one side. It may describe an action a boat takes, as in “We careened to the right as the wave hit.” It’s also mistaken for ‘career’, which means to rush headlong in an out-of-control manner, as in “Without brakes, we careered over the embankment.”
The last word, from memebase.com: