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Staff Newsletter Articles  

'Citing Writing' Series  
 short articles on public sector writing skills for staff newsletters

The 'Citing Writing' series of articles is designed for publication in public sector staff newsletters. You are welcome to use these copyright articles in your organisation's internal newsletter without cost. You may not use these articles for any other circumstances without the prior written permission from Rushworth Consultancy Pty Ltd.

The articles focus on public sector writing issues, providing simple rules and approaches to creating documents. Written in an amusing and informal tone, the articles are an average of
227 words long.

Francis Walsh is a specialist in public sector writing. Over 270 client organisations use his consultancy and training expertise. Please visit the other pages of this website to gain an insight into his work.

It is a requirement that the articles appear in their totality without change, including the sign-off at the end. Please copy them from this web page.

If you have suggestions about other issues that Francis Walsh could address in similar articles, on writing or communication in the public sector, please email your ideas to Rushworth Consultancy.

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Article 1 (229 words)
Citing Writing
Francis Walsh

The 'postrophe

Recently, I saw a sign painted on the window of a new-car dealer. It read: For Sale. New Vehicles'. The message played on my mind. What was it that the new vehicles owned? This was brilliant advertising, no doubt.

It reminded me that people ponder perpetual problems with 'postophes. The wriggly little devils go missing in headings, are lost in lists and collapse in colloquialisms. How many pedants have made a career from knowing how, when, where and why to use the apostrophe?

Okay, let's beat  'em at their own game.

Apostrophes show that letters are missing: couldn't, o'clock, 'postrophe. They also show ownership: the cat's whisker, the Parliament's members, the Jones's home.

To show ownership, write the word in full (singular or plural), add the apostrophe, then add the extra s if you would normally say it.

Imagine that two dogs own a kennel. Write the word in full (dogs). Put in the apostrophe (dogs'). Say it aloud. Do we need another s? No. We don't say: the dogses kennel. So, the correct form, in this case, is the dogs' kennel.

Be careful with its. The word its, without an apostrophe, is a possessive pronoun. It doesn't need an apostrophe. However, the word it's is short for it is. The apostrophe shows that something is missing.

No-one gets it right all the time. However, it doesn't hurt to try.

Francis Walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy

 

 

Article 2 (226 words)
Citing Writing
Francis Walsh
  
Completely Dotty

It's raining dot points. My office has so many dot points that they pour out of my monitor screen and cover my desk like confetti. Since when was I married to dot points? What's this all about?

Dot points are fine. Don't get me wrong. I love a good bullet, but why do so many paragraphs start with a dot?

Dot points are simply lists, long lists, made easier to read by changing their format. Use parallel construction (start each dot with the same grammatical form) and parallel punctuation (end each dot, except the last, with the same punctuation).

Americans start each dot with a capital letter. Australians do that only if the dot is a full sentence. I still finish non-sentence dot points with a comma (if it is a short fragment) or semicolon (if it is a clause with a verb and an object). The last dot point gets a full stop.

Many people leave out some or all of the punctuation. I can't cope with that. I learned to do it the 'right' way so I'll try to stick with what I know.

In a public sector organisation I worked in recently, I was told not to use the word 'bullets'. The in-house style police said 'bullets' was too violent a term. I had to call them 'dot points'. Completely dotty, I'd say.

Francis Walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy

 

Article 3 (214 words)
Citing Writing
Francis Walsh

Dash it All!

When you see a long dash in text, think of a hammock between two palm trees on a beach. We are talking here about Hawaiian shirts and relying on others for support.

That long dash is always informal and lies within the sound structure of a sentence. It's always a bit, well, slapdash.

People use long dashes (called 'em dashes' or 'em rules') instead of parentheses. The em dash—the American version looks like this—is usually the width of a capital 'M' in the font you are using. The British em dash – why are things so difficult? – looks slightly different: shorter, with a space either side. Australians use both styles.

Sometimes, there's only one em dash. The other is implied at the start or end of the sentence. Sometimes, there is one but it has a different purpose. You are supposed to use an em dash when there's an abrupt change so that you warn the reader—a large spider has just crawled onto your desk!

Using Microsoft Word? Go to Insert then Symbols then Special Characters. You'll find the em dash there.

To make parentheses more formal, use commas. To let them laze around in a hammock on a beach, use the em dash—oh, that sea breeze makes me so lazy.

Francis Walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy
 

 

 


A
rticle 4 (219 words)
Citing Writing
Francis Walsh

Capital Idea

I found an old, musty volume on my grandmother's dusty bookshelf. Bound in Moroccan leather, it has a spine that splits when it's opened. Inside the cover, there's marbled paper and a half title page followed by a full title page in Gothic font.

It is so utterly different from today's books and electronic publications in almost every respect. Look, for example, at the capital letters.

My grandmother's book is so old that each chapter starts with an exaggerated first letter. It is called a 'capitula'. 'Capital letter' comes from that ancient Latin word. The long-gone typesetter also started a word with a capital at every opportunity: people's names, place names, titles, national groups, holidays, events, days, months, political entities and points of the compass.

'Upper case' and 'lower case' refer to type (individual characters made of lead) that typesetters stored in upper and lower boxes or drawers. Some people call them 'majuscules' and 'minuscules'.

So, there is no surprise to see the world-wide debate about capitalising 'Internet'. The word 'intranet' always begins with a lower case 'i', so, it is argued, the word 'Internet' really doesn't need the excessive status suggested by the capital. Almost certainly, the proponents of lower case (I call them the 'minuscules') will win this battle. They have won so many in the past.

francis walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy

 

 

Article 5 (239 words)
Citing Writing
Francis Walsh

Cul8r Alligator

You have seen it a hundred times: someone waiting for a bus or drinking a coffee, mobile telephone in hand, using their thumb to write a message. They may be using a shorthand that is truly of our age. Even the Oxford Dictionary has a section devoted to chat line, phone and Internet shorthand.

People in the public sector are not immune. I receive emails that make me lol (laugh out loud) or even rotfl (roll on the floor laughing).

Avoid these informal abbreviations unless they are appropriate. In any case, I don't think they will last. A word processing tsunami is on its way.

Voice recognition specialists say that within ten years the keyboard will be gone. Goodbye to the clicking and clacking; goodbye to the QWERTY keys; goodbye to the flying two-finger technique. The computer will soon learn our speaking style (accent, tone and the rest) and translate it into text. Voice recognition is not new but it is about to get much better.

Things will change: sound proof partitioning; headsets and microphones for everyone; and a different writing style. If we speak to the word processor, our writing may become more conversational. We may correct this with the grammar checker, which already has tone settings: informal, standard and formal. Probably, we will strike problems we haven't even thought of yet.

Personally, I have decided to seek shelter from this word processing tsunami. bbl (be back later)

Francis Walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy
 

 


Article 6
(212 words)
Citing Writing
Francis Walsh

Parallels Bar None

You probably watched the Olympics on television. Remember the gymnastics? I particularly enjoyed the parallel bars. It's not over in a millisecond like the vault and it doesn't have the sickening falls of the high bar.

I love the parallel bars competition because it reminds me of grammar. Yes, I know ... 'Get a life!' You see, parallels occur in writing often. They make the reader understand, remember and believe.

First, parallels occur in arguments. Show how one experience or event compares with another, then the reader can judge whether the outcomes may be similar. Contrasts show how things are not parallel. 

Second, parallels occur in powerful writing. Winston Churchill wrote, 'We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields ...' He used 'we shall' ten times, building a tremendous crescendo. Not that you'll be writing Churchillian speeches at work, but the technique is powerful.

Third, we use parallel construction in lists. We repeat the same grammatical form to show readers that the ideas are related: 'She loves to read books, to write speeches and to amuse friends'.

It doesn't matter how you do it, when you do it or why you do it, as long as the parallels are there.

Francis Walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy

 

 

Article 7 (210words)
Citing Writing
Francis Walsh

Avoid Agreement Annoyance

There's nothing nicer than the icon of a handshake. It's about people supporting each other, coming to a common purpose. So, too, it is with grammar.

Note how you feel when you read: 'The cat are sleeping tonight'. Something is radically wrong. The issue is agreement: subject–verb agreement.

You see, the subject is singular or plural, so the verb must be similar; it must agree. 'The cat' is singular, so it takes a singular verb 'is': 'The cat is sleeping'. The word 'cats' is plural, so the verb must be 'are': 'The cats are sleeping'.

Some people mistakenly think an organisation is plural: 'The CSIRO are investigating'. It should be: 'The CSIRO is investigating'.

Sometimes you seem to be breaking the rule but you should do it anyway: 'The police are on their way' and 'Their bread and butter is selling insurance'.

Here are the rules. 

Singular and singular (use a plural verb): The cat and dog are sleeping.
Singular or singular (use a singular verb): The cat or the dog is sleeping.
Singular plus extra information (use a singular verb): The dog, with the cat, is sleeping.

If you are confused, make that subject closest to the verb agree with it: The cat or the dogs are missing.

Francis Walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy
 


Article 8
(244 words)
Citing Writing
Francis Walsh

Comma and And

It was like a hydrogen bomb. That was the reaction when my supervisor, many years ago, found a comma before an 'and' in a letter I had written. It was my mistake. His eyes glowed radioactively and a small mushroom cloud formed over his bald dome.

Of course, now I'm more sensitive when my boss knows better. Back then, I grabbed every style guide and punctuation text I could find. I wanted a rule.

American style (except for The New York Times) is to put a comma before the 'and' in a simple list: 'red, white, and blue'. Australian style says the comma before the 'and' isn't needed.

However, all guidelines say that, if you have a complex list, you may need a comma before the 'and': 'We shall meet with staff from three departments: Treasury and Finance, Infrastructure and Industry, and Transport and Regional Development'.

More importantly, use a comma before a conjunction if clauses before and after have different subjects. Huh? Here's an example: 'I am going to the shops, and my friends will meet me there'. 'I' is the subject of the first clause and 'my friends' is the subject of the second.

So, you should use a comma before 'and' in some circumstances. My free punctuation ebook on my web site has all the rules.

Be careful. When I showed the rules to my boss, he scowled, but at least, after that, he got his commas right. So did I.

Francis Walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy

 

 

Article 9 (227 words)
Citing Writing
Francis Walsh

To Split or to Completely Split

To split or not to split, that is the question. However, this question is probably not as profound the one that Hamlet had to face, sitting with a skull in his hand, contemplating murder or suicide at Ellsinore Castle.

Some will say, 'Don't split the infinitive'. They learned the rule back in 1954 and will stick with it.

Experts say the rule is doubtful. HW and FG Fowler (The King's English, 1908) wrote that we should be careful, but 'no one should give way to superstitious reverence for an absolute rule'.

The infinitive verb has 'to' before it: 'to love', 'to jump', 'to go'. A word between the 'to' and the verb splits the infinitive: 'to deeply love', 'to foolishly jump', 'to boldly go' (that last one is for 'Star Trek' fans).

Putting the adverb (deeply, foolishly, boldly) before or after the infinitive can solve most problems: 'to love deeply'. Make sure the meaning is right.

The rule comes from 'traditional grammarians', a rare breed, who believe we should follow the rules of Latin. In Latin, 'amare' means 'to love'. The infinitive can't be split because it's created by the word's ending (-are). That's where the 'rule' in English came from. Crazy stuff, really.

Of course, if you are told at work not to split the infinitive, then don't. Sometimes, we have to carefully play the game.

Francis Walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy

 

 


Article 10
(228 words)
Citing Writing
Francis Walsh

Which: Which or That?

You're at your work station staring at your computer monitor. Your fingers are flying over the keyboard. You have your grammar checker turned on and the dratted green line appears under your words. Your word processor is complaining about 'that' and 'which'.

So, you either turn off the grammar checker and ignore the complaint or try to sort out the problem.

Things have changed with 'which' and 'that'. Well, I think they have changed in Australia. I seem to remember that we used them interchangeably, but now there is a rule. We are all supposed to follow it. This rule and many others are in my free grammar book on my web site.

If you are defining something, use 'that': 'This is the house that has a curved front drive'. Although it seems to describe, 'that' tells you to take 'a curved front drive' as a definition.

If you are describing something, use 'which': 'This is the house, which has a curved front drive'. 'Which' tells you that the information about the drive is a description.

Sometimes 'which' helps to explain something: 'The car crashed into the house, which stands on a steep curve in the road'.

Use a comma before 'which' and a comma or full stop at the end of the description or explanation.

Now, that you know which one to use, that should help.

Francis Walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy

 

 

Article 11 (240 words)
Citing Writing
Francis Walsh

Save the Comma!

'Come on! Come on, comma!'

I feel like Lleyton Hewitt hitting that winning, down-the-line backhand. It's a real fight back: a fight for commas and for all punctuation.

You may use a 'closed' or an 'open' approach to punctuation. A closed approach means to include all the punctuation possible. An open approach means to put in only the essential.

I like the closed approach but I don't always get it right and that can be disastrous. 'After eating the police went home.' It sounds as though cannibalism is rampant in the police service. The comma saves the day: 'After eating, the police went home'.

You should use a comma before an introductory word: 'However your concerns are justified'. This is ambiguous. Does 'however' mean 'but' or 'in whichever way'? If it means 'but', you must use a comma.

You can see why punctuation is important. Download my free ebook Punc. from my website, if you want to get your punc. right.

I worry about semicolons, too. We see them in dot points but rarely between clauses: 'I am happy; they are not'. Some people require a semicolon before 'however' when it is followed by a second clause: 'I am happy; however, they are not'.

The colon is used for lists, even lists of one: 'We should do one thing: run for our lives'. Use the colon for explanations, too.

So, let's save the comma. Come on, colon! Long live punc.

Francis Walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy

 


Article 12
(234 words)

Citing Writing
Francis Walsh

Try Type Training

Try saying that heading three times! I'm not sure why we need training in tripe. But, knowing more about type is a good idea.

I am a 'word' rather than a 'visual' person, but words' first impact is visual. A good layout attracts the reader and provides information in a logical form.

First, I look for space. Wide margins (at least the width of a thumb) and short line lengths usually make reading easier. The best line length is ten to twelve words. I look for lots of space around headings, too, so I can easily navigate through a document.

Readers start at the top left corner of a page then their focus curves down to the bottom right corner. A knowledgeable writer puts headings, illustrations and breakout boxes in the way of what’s called 'reader's gravity'.

Readers are confused by words that are broken across lines. So, flush left and ragged right is usually the easiest for them. The educated elite is comfortable with justified type; everyone else finds it hard going.

Finally, I look at the type. Fonts are either serif (Times New Roman) or sans serif (Arial). The serif is easier to read in large chunks like paragraphs. The sans serif is easier to read in short spurts like headings and breakout boxes.

Make the text easier to read, especially for those whose eyesight is not perfect. Avoid tangled typographic traps.

Francis Walsh
www.franciswalsh.com
© Rushworth Consultancy

 

 

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