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Some Notes on Writing
Categories: Netizenry, Writing
by Admin on Friday, January 5th, 2024 at 10:11:01

I appreciate that many are taking advantage of the opportunity to share what they know, what they suspect, and their speculations on the world at large. This is the most wonderful part of websites and writing-centric social media like Medium. It's what keeps me surfing the net day after day.

Writing, like most things, can be done well, or it can be done… less well. Here's a quick guide in no particular order to just a few of the common stumbling blocks (and some uncommon ones, just for variety) you should know how to avoid before you hit those keycaps.

Why? Because these types of issues cause readers to make a mental state change from paying attention to what you wrote to considering how you presented it. This is rarely a good thing, unless your writing is so fabulous that the reader falls into a paroxysm of adoration of your magnificent command of the language. I wouldn't count on that.

It’s not about being an annoying "grammar nazi." It's the opposite of creating annoyance. The goal is always to create a pleasant and disruption free reading experience where your meaning and intent remain the reader's focus. So let's have at it.

Be aware of the difference between "it's", which is a contraction meaning "it is" as in "it's time to go", and "its" as in "scratched its head", which indicates possession. This is the reverse of the usual use of an apostrophe-s sequence indicating possession, such as "Linda's hair."

While we’re considering apostrophes used to indicate possession, keep in mind that if a noun is singular such as "cat", then you’d write "the cat's dish", versus when a noun is plural, ending in "s" such as "cats" in the case where you are the guardian of multiple cat wards, you’d write "the cats' dishes."

The difference between "their", which means something associated with others as in "their clothes", and "there", which indicates a place as in "over there", and "they're", which is a contraction that means "they are" as in "they're coming over later."

The difference between "your", which indicates ownership such as "your watch", and "you're", which is a contraction meaning "you are", as in "you're kidding."

The difference between "to", which generally indicates a direction as in "going to town" or intent as in "to care", and "too", which indicates something is excessive as in "too much" or can stand in for the phrase "as well" as in "me too."

The difference between "into", which specifically indicates movement as in "we went into the cave", versus "in to" which is used as part of infinitive verb phrase such as "I brought the cat in to the veterinarian to be spayed." You would say "I took the cat into the veterinarian's office" because that indicates movement towards a destination, whereas within "brought the cat in to the veterinarian", "in to" relates to the verb and not the movement itself.

The difference between "who's", which is a contraction meaning "who is" as in "who's coming along", and "whose" which indicates possession, as in "whose wallet is this?"

The difference between "complement", which means to enhance something as in "the dress complements her figure", and "compliment", which means to praise, as in "I must compliment your diligence." There’s also the technical term which is "complement" as well, as in "two's complement representation" and "to complement an operand."

The difference between "rigid", which means stiff or inflexible as in "they have established rigid rules", and "ridged", which indicates lines of texture, as in "the ridged frets on a guitar neck serve to create well defined notes."

The difference between "ensure", which means to make certain as in "to ensure your safety", and "insure", which means to protect against risk as in "to insure your vehicle." Watch out for mixing these up with "assure" as well. To assure is the intent to inspire confidence as in "I can assure you we'll be safe."

The difference between "lose" as in "they'll lose the game" and "did you lose your wallet", versus "loose", as in "those clothes are loose on you."

The difference between "affect", which is a verb that generally indicates causality, as in "did that affect your thinking", and "effect", which is a noun that indicates result or consequence as in "the flames were a special effect" and "the primary effect was to annoy me."

The differences between "peek", as in "to take a peek around a corner", and "pique", as in "to pique your interest", and "peak", as in "mountain peak."

The abbreviation "i.e." is from the Latin for "id est", which means "that is" as in "sick, i.e. illness." You use this to clarify or restate something you've already said.

The abbreviation "e.g." is from the Latin for "exempli gratia", which means "for example" as in "an attached dwelling, e.g. a duplex."

Here's a tricky one. It transcends grammar and leans into courtesy. When you say something like "Me and her went to the shop", the error isn’t so much one of grammar as it is a violation of one of the respect elements of courtesy: you should always put the other person first. "She and I went to the shop" is the best way to say this. Just as you would hold a door open for someone if you get there first rather than just go in ahead of them, you are the one doing the writing (or speaking.) Out of respect and courtesy, you put the other person first. It wouldn't be your grammar instructor taking you to task over this; it would more likely be your mother and/or father.

I’m going to inflict my personal opinion on you for this one. Commas can be used formally (which is not typically how one writes for your average net audience) and there are numerous well defined rules for that which you can go read up on if you’re feeling truly masochistic, or they can be used conversationally, in which case they serve much more simply as phrasing signals. One good way to figure out just how you'd like people to perceive your phrasing is to say a sentence out loud. When you pause in speaking the sentence, that’s very likely a good place for a comma, which is what signals the pause. For example, when I speak the words "for example cats are furry", I will inevitably pause after the word example, and so the conversational way to write that is "for example, cats are furry." I find that a conversational writing style, in particular this mode of comma usage, conveys meaning considerably more smoothly than the formal writing style does; if you disagree, then by all means, go read this.

Periods and quotes at the ends of sentences are another grammar landmine where the reality doesn't match the rule. In terms of how a sentence is actually understood in the mind of the reader, when you incorporate a quote at the end of a sentence, the period completes your sentence, not just the quote, so it seems perfectly reasonable (and it is, actually) to put the period outside the final quote. However, some evildoer, somewhere, made the absolutely wrong decision and the rigid rule we must follow is: put the period inside the terminating quote, not after it. So this is correct…

She told me "I love those cats."

…while this is not:

She told me "I love those cats".

This one differs between American English and British English. In American English, when you declare using a colon, the way to determine how to capitalize what follows is this: If it is just one statement you do not capitalize at its beginning. However, if you’re going to go into more than one sentence, then you capitalize the letter after the colon, and the first letter of each dependent sentence thereafter. For British English, the first letter after a colon is capitalized only if it's a proper noun or an acronym.

Here’s one that trips people up constantly. It is the confusion of the phrase "begs the question" with "raises the question." I can pretty much guarantee you that "raises the question" is almost always the phrase you should use. "Begs the question" is a precise description of an informal fallacy that occurs when an argument's premises assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. Unless that bit of rhetorical finger pointing is exactly what you meant, never write (or say) "begs the question." Say "raises the question", as in "your idea is interesting, but raises the question of what to do if…"

Decimate: This word comes to us from the Romans, and it means to "remove one in every ten." Typically in a very unfriendly manner. There's a great deal of modern usage where decimate is used where the author meant "mostly destroyed" or "completely destroyed", which would be something on the order of "remove nine of ten" or "remove ten of ten", both of which are pretty much the polar opposite of the original meaning. Yes, languages evolve (or devolve, as in this case) and if you use decimate to mean "mostly destroyed" or "destroyed", people will likely understand what you mean… but you're much better off to use words that actually mean what you’re trying to say — unequivocally.

AI: This abbreviation stands for Artificial Intelligence. The only intelligent entities on the planet have one particular, and quite unique, thing in common: consciousness and its various aspects. The actual technologies underlying what the marketing types are working to disingenuously characterize as "AI" are something much less complex called Machine Learning, or ML. Which is something, so far at least, that is completely devoid of consciousness. When we talk about image generation systems like Stable Diffusion or Midjourney, or simply your "smart thermostat", at best we’re talking about ML. We might just be talking about the usual run of algorithms programmers have been building for many decades now. We most definitely are not talking about AI. Because we have the "A", but we don't have the "I." You can accurately use the term AI when you’re talking about research towards that unattained goal as in "we’re trying to achieve AI"; but using AI to describe the various technologies in place today is incorrect. No matter how much marketing folk claim otherwise.

Here's an interesting bit of muddled usage I'm intimately familiar with because one of my businesses in a past life was a hosiery shop. Stockings are hosiery that come in separate parts (pairs), one for each leg. Thigh highs are stockings that cover the leg to the thigh. Pantyhose are single garments that cover both legs; they may incorporate panties, or not. Tights are pantyhose. All of these are hosiery. Pantyhose and tights are most definitely not stockings. I could write an entire article about this one.

There are more of these kinds of authoring pitfalls, in fact there are a great many more, but I hope that the ones I've briefly covered here at least inspire you to examine your writing carefully. Ask yourself if you're certain what each turn of phrase means. Speak your work out loud to see if it flows well. Overall, try to develop a habit of keeping an eye towards making your reader's experience one of learning what you have to say, rather than being distracted by how you are saying it.

As one of my instructors told me:

Writing is art, just as painting is an art. You can paint your words beautifully, or you can drag your fingers through your paints like an addled child. Your readers will know the difference.

Slightly edited from a post I made on Medium.

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