Sunday, June 26, 2011

Writing with Consistency

by Ilana W-B

Usually, my blogging will consist of instruction in proper grammar and punctuation. I promise to return to my grammar soapbox soon. But for the moment, I will bring to your attention a small issue that afflicts many otherwise-fine résumés and essays. To eliminate this evil in your own writing, you need not memorize any rules or consult any obscure references; you need merely pay attention to small details. The problem to which I refer is a lack of consistency.

In English, both grammar and formatting leave us lots of choices. However, within a single document, you always want to make the same choices. You may leave either one or two spaces between a period and the first letter of the next sentence, but your essay should never have some periods followed by a double space and others followed by a single one. If you use a colon before an independent clause (something that could stand alone as a sentence), it is up to you whether to capitalize the first word of the clause following the colon. But again, your choice should be consistent throughout your piece.

Here, in no particular order, are the inconsistencies I most commonly see:
  • Punctuation at the end of a bulleted list. You should end no points with a period, all points with a period, or only the last point with a period (if the list forms part of a larger sentence, as in this case)
  • Capitalization of list items. See how they’re all capitalized here? It would look pretty bad if some were and some weren't
  • Alignment of bullets. If you have multiple bulleted lists, the bullets should all line up, and there should always be the same amount of space between the bullet and the start of the list item. The same goes for numbered or lettered lists
  • Number of spaces between sentences. Choose one or two and stick to it
  • Capitalization after a colon (see the paragraph above for details)
  • Serial commas (the ones that come between the penultimate item of a list and the conjunction). I don’t have strong feelings about this particular piece of punctuation, but I make a point of always using it simply so that I know I will be consistent
  • Capitalization of titles of jobs, clubs, positions, etc. You may describe yourself as “Chairman of the Board” or as “the chairman of the board”, but make sure it’s the same for all the boards you’ve chaired
  • Placement of commas and periods with respect to quotation marks. This is a sticky issue right now, with various groups cheering for and ranting against the rise of “logical punctuation” (look it up). I think it’s fine if you want to put the punctuation outside the quotation marks if what’s within the marks isn’t what’s truly being punctuated (which isn’t how we traditionally do things on this side of the Atlantic, but which makes more logical sense), but don’t mix two styles in one composition
  • UK vs. US spelling. Choose your form of grey/gray, color/colour, honor/honour, realize/realise, theater/theatre, etc. and stick with it
  • Part of speech that begins each list item. Note how each of the items in this list begins with a noun and without an article. It would be inconsistent for me to begin some with nouns and some with other parts of speech (for instance, with a command to “begin lists consistently” or with a noun preceded by an article like “the capitalization”). This applies both to bulleted lists and to lists within sentences.
This is of course an incomplete list, but it offers a catalogue of some of the most common offenses. With a careful proofreading and attention to detail, you can easily avoid these and other inconsistencies.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hollywood Makes Computer Science Cool

By Ilana W-B

Today's New York Times documented the recent increase in computer science majors, especially at Ivy league schools. Anecdotal evidence suggests films like The Social Network and the celebrity status of tech gurus (Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg, etc.) are responsible.  You can read the whole article here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Common Punctuation Errors: Hyphens and Dashes

by Ilana W-B

“As the soccer ball flew into the goal, the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the game. I glanced at the snow-covered scoreboard and inwardly celebrated as I realized we had won, 3–2. It was the start of a good season—a winter-soccer season that would end with a national championship.”

I made that paragraph up. Outdoor winter soccer does not exist (as far as I know). However, that paragraph, though false, is still a useful example—it contains hyphens, an en dash, and an em dash. The goal of this post is to teach you how to use (and how to type) each.

I will not go into detail about when to use hyphens; that subject is lengthy enough to deserve its own post. In brief:
  • Some words come with hyphens (for instance, “editor-in-chief” or “twenty-five”). 
  • Other words require hyphens because of how they are used. When you use a noun or adjective in combination with another adjective to form one idea, you generally need to hyphenate. This is the case with “snow-covered” above.
There are of course other situations requiring hyphens, but that covers the vast majority. When you need a hyphen, simply type one. Unlike dashes, hyphens come directly on US keyboards.

Unfortunately, because hyphens are on the keyboard and dashes are not, many students simply use hyphens as a replacement for dashes. This is incorrect! Here are the two most common types of dashes (and the only two you are ever likely to need if you are writing in English and not compiling dictionaries or writing out mathematical equations).

The en dash expresses ranges or contrasts. Sports scores (“3–2”) and times or dates (“3pm–4pm” or “June 2–July 4”) are the most frequent situations where you’ll need the en dash. It also replaces a hyphen when you’re using compound nouns or things that are already hyphenated (“the pro-abortion–anti-abortion debate”), but you should probably just avoid phrases that require that particular usage.

A typographical note: Do not surround the en dash with spaces. No matter how much better this may look, it is always wrong. Surrounding an en dash with spaces makes it functionally equivalent to an em dash, which serves an entirely different grammatical purpose.

So how do you type an en dash? This is a little tricky. It is always available in the symbols menu of word processing programs, but it can be tedious to find it every time you need it. In Microsoft Word, type a word or number, a space, a hyphen, another space, and another word or number. On the next space you type, Word should automatically convert your hyphen to an en dash. Of course, you should now delete the spaces and replace the numbers with whatever you would actually like to have on either side of the dash. If you’re using a program other than Word, the process is probably different. A Google search with “how to type an en dash” and the name of your word processing software or operating system ought to yield results.

The final dash type we’ll explore is the em dash. This is used for separating out thoughts, much the way you might use a comma or a pair of parentheses. It generally indicates a longer pause than a comma, but material that disrupts the flow of the sentence less than a parenthetical, as in example above: “It was the start of a good season—a winter-soccer season that would end with a national championship.” Em dashes are often also used in pairs: “I had not known—how could I possibly have known?—what those two weeks would entail.” Rules for the use of an em dash are pretty fluid, but in general, you should be able to skip the part set aside by the dash or dashes and still have the sentence flow and make sense.

Most people do not space em dashes, though the rules here are less strict than they are for en dashes. Newspapers sometimes space em dashes, often using small (hair) spaces.

Typing an em dash is pretty easy. In Word, simply type a word, type two hyphens in a row, and type another word. When you type the next space, Word will automatically convert your two hyphens to an em dash. (Again, Google should provide instructions if you are using a different word processing system.) If you don’t like the aesthetics of em dashes, there are several grammatically equivalent options, including a spaced en dash and a series of two or three unspaced hyphens.

If you’d like to read more about hyphens and dashes and their correct use, here are some resources: