It’s Not All About You—Avoid First Person

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Do you enjoy hearing people talk all about themselves? “Me this and me that. I went here. I’ve been there. I know what we should do. Look what I just bought. Well, I think that…” On and on and on they go completely unaware that a conversation involves listening—oblivious to the eye rolls and disinterested sighs of their cornered interlocutors.

Writing is no different. Your reader doesn’t want to constantly hear you talking about yourself, making reference to yourself, or driving home your opinion. Readers want balance and honesty. They want a compelling style and a humble narrator.

Take this paragraph as an example:

I find it hard to focus when I know that there are so many problems in the world. Sometimes I can’t even get through my day when I think about the disease and war and starvation that plagues our world that we see constantly because of our instantaneous consumptive media world. But should I be worried? Should I try to push these ideas from my mind to focus on my life? Theses issues are so vast and huge and complex, I don’t think there is anything I can do. But maybe there is something I can do, however small and insignificant it may seem.

Notice how the paragraph changes when first person is removed. No longer is the focus on the writer; the focus is on the larger picture. The points are more concise and compelling freed from a subjective experience.

The world is full of problems. Disease and war and starvation plague the world and are more visible in our instantaneous consumptive media world. Should people react with concern? Should they try to push these ideas from their mind to focus on their lives? Theses issues are so vast and huge and complex, some may think there is nothing to be done. But there is always something that can be done, however small and insignificant it may seem.

 

Now this doesn’t mean you can’t use first person and reference yourself, but this should be done occasionally and thoughtfully, and it should generally not be in the form of “I think,” or “I believe,” or “I feel.” Good authors don’t do this because they take the time to craft sentences and paragraphs that make it clear how they feel. And the really good writers make it subtle, couching their opinion in structure and adjectives, letting the reader decipher their opinion. And the reason for doing this? To let the reader make their own decision. No one wants to be told what to believe. Readers are people and want to decide for themselves. Aim to empower your reader—not pontificate at them.

For example, this sentence is too much:

I believe that chocolate ice cream is the best type of ice cream ever created.

The whole thing is one big opinion. When a writer uses words like “the best” or “ever created,” objectivity has been subsumed in subjectivity. Assume that your reader is smart enough to realize this and remove “I believe” from your sentence because ultimately it’s redundant.

Chocolate ice cream is the best type of ice cream ever created.

 

The acceptable times to use “I” are when you want to remind your reader that you are like them, that you too are human, are passionate and compassionate, or are trying to commiserate with the reader. Notice the subtle use of “I” to allow the writer to connect with the reader.

The recent discovery of U.S. spying, and especially with the cooperation of large tech companies like Facebook and Google, has reignited questions of privacy on the Internet. This is an important conversation to have, and one that I am glad to engage in, since it involves not only protection of privacy, but also the trade off between rights and security. A fundamental question that we all must grapple with. How much do I want to give up in order to be safe? The answer to this question will be different for each person, but after 9/11, and more recently Boston, everyone agrees that some of our privacy should be sacrificed for protection—we just need to decide how much.

 

If you are writing a letter to a friend, a personal email, a note to your mom, or a love poem, feel free to use first person. These are the appropriate times to use “I” in your writing. But do so sparingly. It will improve your style. Ultimately, the recommendations in this post are for more formal settings, like papers for school, work emails, and timed essays for tests.

 

 

 Write in Active Voice—Avoid Passive Voice Answers

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Which picture do you find more compelling? The player driving to the basket for a layup? Or a ball going through a basket? I assume that nearly everyone is more interested in the picture on the left than the one on the right. We are social animals, compelled by human stories and drama. To have a player scoring is far more interesting than a ball falling through the net because we don’t know who scored the point or how hard they strived to score.

Writing in active voice is the picture on the left; writing in passive voice is the picture on the right.

 

What is it?

In active voice the actor does the action. In passive voice the actor receives the action. It’s the difference between creating a sentence that tells the reader who did what, and in that order, or creating a sentence that tells us what was done by whom.

The basic structure of an English sentence follows the pattern subject-verb-object. In active voice the actor is in the subject position of the sentence. In passive voice the actor is absent or placed in the object position of the sentence.

Active Voice: The player drives to the basket.
Passive Voice: The basketball was shot. 

All passive voice contains a be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being). But not every sentence with a be verb is passive. The previous sentence is not passive because the be verb links an adjective (passive) to a noun (sentence).

Passive sentences may also have a prepositional phrase at the end to indicate who the actor is:

Passive VoiceThe basketball was shot by a player.

But if this sentence is about the picture at the top, then it infers who that actor is since no one is present in the picture. Yet another problem.

 

Write in Active Voice!

The difference between active and passive voice is simple really—the difference between putting the actor at the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence. But the effects on your writing are dramatic.

Take a mundane sentence as an example: Ice cream was reimagined by Ben and Jerry.

The actors sit at the back of the sentence. What normally would sit in the object position of the sentence after the verb (ice cream) finds itself in the spotlight at the beginning of the sentence. Extra words crowd the sentence (by and was). Also, the compelling verb (reimagined) loses its punch in the passive voice. The -ed crumbles the word into a phantom of its true self.

What about this instead? Ben and Jerry reimagined ice cream.

This sentence has umph and power. It’s forceful and compels the reader forward. The actors sit at the front of the sentence and act out the action of the sentence. The verb sings now.

Also, passive voice should be avoid because it is not emphatic and often a sign of an author who doesn’t know what to say. Or, sometimes people want to hide responsibility for some action or veil their lack of knowledge and so turn to passive voice to do so. Don’t come off as an indecisive writer shirking responsibility. Change your passive voice.

Put the actor at the beginning of the sentence. Activate your verbs. Eliminate the extra words. Passive voice will weigh down your sentences.

 

Choose answers that are in active voice

Test makers love to foil students with passive voice answer choices. Once you add this to your checklist of possible errors on the test, it will be easy to notice and easy to narrow down your choices. Whether you are dealing with GMAT Sentence Corrections or SAT Improving Sentences, testmakers will definitely test this skill, so be on the look out. Eliminate all answer choices in passive voice. You will start getting more answers correct if you do.

 

But don’t hate passive voice–sometimes it’s appropriate

Passive voice tends to get a bad rap. Yes, it does add extra words to sentences. Yes, it does make verbs less compelling. Yes, it does arrest the forward movement of sentences. And yes, it does result in tentative sentences.

Yet sometimes we need passive voice.

For one, sometimes we actually don’t know who the actor is. When an action has taken place, and we want to talk about it, then we need to use passive voice. For example:

The ball was thrown through the glass window.

At times, we would rather emphasize the action and not the actor or to emphasize the receiver of the action. This is a time to use passive voice:

The houses, the cars, the trees, the entire small town was demolished by the storm.

 

 

 

 

 How to Use Parentheses

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Emoticons are older than you think. This example above was published in the March 30, 1881 issue of Puck, a satirical magazine.

Parentheses are a pair of curving lines used for smiley faces and sad faces. They are also sometimes used in writing to offset information from the sentence that is not vital. And by not vital, I mean that the information could be skipped over and the reader would still be able to understand the main topic and discern the meaning of your sentence.

So what kind of information ends up inside parentheses? These so called parenthetical moments are for examples, asides, additions, afterthoughts, slight digressions, and explanations. Sometimes the information inside the parentheses fits nicely with the grammar of the sentence. Sometimes it doesn’t (and by no means is it required to). But unlike their cousins the dash and comma, which tend to highlight the information, the parentheses draw attention away from the information and de-emphasize its importance. This is one reason to use them sparingly; they arrest the flow of your writing.

 

PUNCTUATION

At the End
Punctuation can appear inside or outside the closing parenthesis.

When a complete sentence is contained within the parentheses, then place an end punctuation mark inside the last parenthesis. Make sure to capitalize the first word in the parentheses too.

I never want to go to Disneyland (I know it sounds crazy but it is true. I just never understood the appeal.)

When a word, phrase, or clause appears within the parentheses, then place an end punctuation mark outside the last parenthesis.

Disneyland is the happiest place on earth (yeah right).

If the parenthetical information is not at the end of the sentence, don’t use any end punctuation. Just let it hang in the middle of the sentence.

The happiest place on earth (besides Yosemite National Park) is a maternity wards.

 

Commas
Commas never appear before parentheses. A comma should follow the parentheses since the information that you place there is part of the preceding clause. But a comma is not always required.

INCORRECT: The near extinction of the mountain lion, (also panther, puma, catamount, or cougar) and now recovery, is quite remarkable.

WRONG: The near extinction of the mountain lion (also panther, puma, catamount, or cougar), and now recovery, is quite remarkable.

 

WHEN TO USE

I. Incidental Information
The most common use, as we have been discussing, involves adding information to sentences. This information is additional or incidental, and the ultimate meaning of the sentence does not depend on what is inside of the parentheses.

Explanations

The Higgs Boson (an elementary, subatomic particle first theorized in 1964, which allows matter to have mass) was tentatively confirmed to exist on March 14, 2013.

Examples

Science still has many questions to answer (Does life exist on other planets? Why do animals need sleep? How many animals live in the ocean?), and so we need to encourage more students to pursue careers in science.

Asides

The challenge is a hard one (and I am not saying that I won’t try), but you should know from the beginning that it is likely that we will fail.

 

II. Numbering Lists
When writing out a numbered list, and the items in the list are longer than a single sentence, use parentheses to contain the number. This is a matter of convention that increases readability.

The process for making pizza is relatively straightforward: (1) pour flour, salt, and sugar into a food processor. Pulse until thoroughly mixed. (2) In tepid water, add the yeast. Let rest for 5 to 10 minutes until the water becomes foamy and bubbly. This should be a dramatic change. If not, the water was either too cold or too hot. Try again if so. (3) Turn food processor on and slowly incorporate the water and yeast. The key is to do this slowly. Don’t rush. (4) Once all the water and yeast is incorporated  you should be left with a very sticky ball of dough. Dump onto a well floured surfaced and knead briefly. Form into two balls. (5) Place balls of dough on an oiled baking sheet, cover, and place in the frig for at least 24 hours. (6) Remove dough 4 hours before use. (7) Roll out and bake with your favorite sauce and toppings.

 

III. A Shorthand for Plurals
Not entirely uncommon, parentheses are used to indicate the singular and plural version of a word. Maybe the author is unsure which will occur or it might depend on the context, where sometimes it is singular and sometimes it is plural, and so the author follows this convention to save a little space and explanation.

For the fundraiser, please place your coin(s) in the jar.

 

 How to Use Apostrophes

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My cheese, as in Kevin’s cheese, should not be moved. Don’t touch it!

Apostrophes are used for omission and possession, connection and contraction. Unless you are a poet or a songwriter, you will most often use the apostrophe for showing possession or a loose connection between two things. But in this article, we’ll cover both.

THE BASICS

Possession and Connection
Add an apostrophe and an -s to a word to show possession or ownership of something.

grizzly bear‘s honey

Sean‘s blog

Notice that the apostrophe + s form can be written as a prepositional phrase, but may sound a little awkward. So, apostrophes can be an excellent way to make things clear and concise in your writing.

honey of the Grizzly bear

blog of Sean

Omission and Contraction

The other common use of the apostrophe is to signal that a letter or two has been removed or that two words have been joined together.

Contraction: cannot = cant

Contraction: does not = doesnt

Omission: over = oer

Omission: going = goin

 

NITTY GRITTY DETAILS

1. Singular Nouns Ending in -s

Unfortunately for writers, style guides disagree on what to do in this situation. Some style guides (Oxford University Press, Modern Language Association, the BBC and The Economist) ask the reader to always attach an apostrophe and -s to the word.

Jesus‘s disciples

Thomas‘s tavern

Chess‘s strategy

Dallas‘s downtown district

goodness‘s sake

Other style guides (The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style) let the writer drop the -s and only use an apostrophe. Since a double -s can cause some difficulty when reading, these other guides allow for the -s to be dropped.

Jesus disciples

Thomas tavern

Chess strategy

Dallas downtown district

goodness sake

2. Plural Nouns Ending in -s
When a plural noun ends with an -s, only add an apostrophe.

the plums pits

kids corner

cities residents

Irregular plurals that do not end in -s, should have both the apostrophe and the -s added. However, this can create some strange and awkward readings, so consider rewriting the phrase or sentence to avoid the awkwardness.

Awkward: the two dice‘s sides

Easier to Read: the sides of the two dice

3. Words that end with an -s sound

Some words do not end with an -s, but with an -s sound. Sometimes adding both the apostrophe and the -s can lead to an awkward word to read. If this is the case, some style guides allow the -s to be dropped; other style guides don’t allow you to drop the -s. I’d say the choice is yours unless you have a specific style guide that you are required to follow.

Awkward: convenience‘s sake

Awkward: mice‘s home

Easier to Read: convenience sake

Easier to Read: mice home

These phrases could be rewritten to completely avoid the issue, but it will lead to a wordier expression. You will need to decide what is preferable based on the context.

Rewrite: the sake of convenience

Rewrite: home of the mice

4. Joint Ownership

If more than one person owns something, place the apostrophe and -s on the last noun.

No: Jack‘s and Jill‘s bucket of water

Yes: Jack and Jill‘s bucket of water

But if two or more people own two distinct things, then place the apostrophe and -s on both nouns. Notice that the noun changes from singular to plural in this case.

Jack‘s and Jill‘s buckets of water

5. Omitting the Century from the Date

In some writing, usually less formal, the century can be omitted from the year with an apostrophe.

The 60s

06 earthquake

But in these cases, the century is understood by the reader. But if you are concerned about ambiguity or are writing in a formal setting, write the whole date out.

The 1560s

1906 earthquake

6. For making plurals of letter, numbers, and abbreviations

This is yet another rule that is not universally applied. In some cases, style guides will recommend using an apostrophe and an -s to letters, numbers, and abbreviations. But this can sometimes be ambiguous since adding an apostrophe and an -s to words makes them possessive. So decide for yourself what you prefer.

One way: P‘s and Q‘s

One way: How many 8‘s are there?

One way: CD‘s and DVD‘s 

The Other Way: Ps and Qs

The Other Way: How many 8s are there?

The Other Way: CDs and DVD

7. Not with Geographic Places or Names

Perhaps the most peculiar rule, the United States Board on Geographic Name dropped all apostrophes from names. We rarely think of this case as being strange, but once I learned this rule, I started to notice it everywhere. (Some exceptions do apply, like Martha’s Vineyard, though).

Incorrect: Lucy’s Foot Pass, King’s Canyon Pass, Ca.

Incorrect: Edward‘s Run Wildlife Management Area, Capon Bridge, WV

Correct: Lucys Foot Pass, Kings Canyon Pass, Ca.

Incorrect: Edwards Run Wildlife Management Area, Capon Bridge, WV