Monthly Archives: January 2012

Use of hyphens

This week we discuss hyphen usage. Hyphens are used to link words and parts of words, but the rules regarding their use are as complicated as the U.S. Tax Code. So the Scribe advises that you check Webster’s Third New International Dictionary when presented with a super-tricky hyphen situation. But with that caveat, here are some general rules.

Generally, hyphens should be used in the following situations:

  • To join a prefix to a capitalized word or a number (e.g., un-American; pre-2001).
  • To join a prefix to a main word when the second element consists of two or more words (e.g., non-work-related injury).
  • With adjective phrases containing numerals or with compound modifiers that appear before the word modified (e.g., third-party beneficiary; seven-foot-tall tree; case-by-case basis; five-page reply; good-faith effort).

On the other hand, hyphens should not be used in these situations:

  • With adjective forms of compound modifiers in which the first word is an adverb ending in “ly” (e.g., the hotly contested Senate race; the glacially slow base-runner).
  • With compound adjectives that appear after a verb (e.g., Lee’s initial success at Gettysburg was short lived).
  • With percentages used as an adjective (e.g., 30 percent success; one percent real fruit juice).

Be aware, however, that frequently used word combinations may become just one word—sometimes passing through a hyphenated-word stage (e.g., antitrust; database). Again, it is best to check the dictionary if you just aren’t sure if a word should be hyphenated.

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Eliminating prepositions for smoother writing

This week we consider prepositions. Good writing flows smoothly—sort of like Bing Crosby’s voice (for those of you too young to remember Bing, think Norah Jones). One way to enhance smoothness is by minimizing prepositions.

Prepositions are words (or word groups) that show relationships between sentence elements. “Of,” “in,” and “to” are the most common prepositions. Other common prepositions include “from,” “over,” “by,” “through.” (TIP: If the word fits into this sentence—“I ran ___ the house”—then it is a preposition.)

Prepositions are useful—even indispensable. But too many prepositions create choppy, disjointed sentences that are unpleasant to the ear—sort of like Paris Hilton’s voice.

Let’s consider some examples:

  • The judge of the circuit court ordered the plaintiff in the case to file with the court a notebook of all the exhibits of the plaintiff to be used at trial.
  • The circuit court judge ordered the plaintiff to file a notebook containing the plaintiff’s trial exhibits.

The first example is a mess—hopelessly choppy and difficult to read. The second example is both clearer and shorter. The difference is that the second example isn’t burdened with the numerous prepositions that clog the first example.

The lesson? Pay attention each time you write “of,” “to,” or “in,” and consider whether you can word things differently and eliminate the preposition.

That is all for now …

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Today we discuss appositives.  An appositive is a noun, noun phrase, or series of nouns that identifies the same person, place, or thing by a different name.  Whether to use commas with an appositive depends on whether it is restrictive or nonrestrictive, which is a question of meaning.  Compare the following examples:

  •  My sister Lori went to the football game with me last weekend.
  •  Stephen’s car, a ‘65 red convertible Mustang, is the envy of his friends.

 In the first example, the absence of commas indicates that “Lori” is restrictive (or necessary), because the author has more than one sister; so “Lori” identifies which sister is being referred to.  In the second example, the author has only one car; so the commas indicate that “a ‘65 red convertible Mustang” adds only additional, parenthetical information.

Finally, although an appositive usually follows the word it explains or identifies, it may also precede it, e.g.:

The first state to ratify the U. S. Constitution, Delaware is home to Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.

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Ode to the colon

The Scribe adores the colon. Indeed, the Scribe’s affection might even exceed mere adoration. But it wasn’t always so. For many years, the Scribe overlooked the humble colon, infatuated with its flashier siblings, such as the comma, dash, and exclamation mark. But age and maturity have finally allowed the Scribe to appreciate the colon’s majesty and depth.

The unassuming colon can seem shallow and inconsequential, suitable only for such modest purposes as introducing a quotation, list, or statement, like this:

In Turkey v. Stuffing, the court said:

This is a trespass case in which plaintiff (Turkey) alleges defendant (Stuffing) invaded Turkey’s body cavity, causing pain and suffering. We hold that Turkey’s claim is preempted by the Thanksgiving Day Required Foods Act of 1677.

But the colon can do so much more. The colon is both a separator and a pointer. As a separator, it creates a pause roughly equivalent to a semicolon. But unlike a semicolon, the colon points to what comes next, creating a link between the two statements. Here are some examples:

  • The office manager’s announcement confirmed the whispered rumors: the firm’s new carpet would be orange!
  • Joe prepared for the game by generously partaking from each of the three food groups: chips, beer, and tobacco.
  • And then things got worse: the jury requested a calculator.

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The “em” dash

Today we discuss dashes; specifically, the “em”—or long—dash.  Dashes are most commonly used to amplify and explain ideas, digress from the main idea, or create an abrupt break or sudden change in a sentence, e.g.:

He spent nine hours arguing jury instructions—on which he knew the fate of his client’s case depended.

The “em” dash is formed by typing two hyphens with no space before, between, or after them; Microsoft Word will convert them into an “em” dash when you complete the word after the dash.

That is all for now …

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