10 Quick Reminders

Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation

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Here are ten rules that often confuse people:

1. There is nothing intrinsically right or wrong with passive voice. ‘Voice’ shows whether the subject acts or is acted upon.

What is passive voice? It’s when the actor of a sentence is switched with the acted upon. Example:

Active voice: Jill bit Jack.
Here, the actor is Jill (the biter) and the acted upon is Jack (the bitten). The actor is sometimes called the subject or operator, while the acted upon is sometimes called the object or patient. Now, let’s flip things around:

Passive voice: Jack was bitten by Jill.
The person, place, or thing acted upon (sometimes called the object or patient) is still Jack, but he’s moved forward in the sentence, demoting Jill in importance.

In addition to switching the nouns, there is a switch to the verb that’s necessary to do that: Use forms of the verb ‘to be’, usually with a past participle, as the verb. To do that,

  1. add an auxiliary, a form of to be (is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being)
  2. to a past participle, which typically, but not always, ends in “-ed.” Note: Exceptions to the “-ed” rule include words like paid, won, found, and driven. The UNC Writing Center shows the resultant form as follows:

form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice

Why do we care? Passives can be useful, and they are certainly ‘legal’, so don’t let anybody tell you that they must never be used. Sometimes, though, passives lose the focus the author wants. Example:

Why did the chicken cross the road? Because he's chased by a tiger. Green check mark Active: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Green check mark  Passive: Why was the road crossed by the chicken? (Pretty silly: neither the chicken nor the tiger thinks this little drama is about the road.)

Decide: What’s the focus you want? In the previous example, do you want it to be the chicken or the road? Use the passive voice in the following instances:

Green check mark  When the agent of the action is unimportant, obvious, or unknown.

I was born in Pittsburgh. [passive]
Mother birthed me in Pittsburgh. [active]

Here, the actor is obvious, so the active voice is not necessary.

Green check mark Jack and Jill's well at the edge of a cliff. To emphasize the recipient of the action, to make generic statements, or to smooth out complex sentences.

Jack killed Jill. [active]
Jill was killed by Jack. [passive]

The second example is passive because Jill did not kill herself. It was done to her; she was acted upon by some outside force (her brother Jack). If your focus is on Jill, write about her: Jill died of a broken neck after being pushed down the hill by her brother Jack.

Green check mark Use active voice when you want the focus to be clear and direct. Passive voice often softens the focus. Do you need to ‘beat around the bush’ a bit? Then, use passive voice. Here are some examples of active and passive voice.

       Acid causes heartburn. [active]

      But: Heartburn is caused by acid. [passive]

“Chocolate contains concentrations of theobromine (a compound that occurs naturally in many plants such as cocoa, tea and coffee plants), which relaxes the esophageal sphincter muscle, letting stomach acid squirt up into the esophagus” (Gillson). [active]

But: Chocolate has been found to contain concentrations of theobromine, which can cause heartburn, but also acts as a mild aphrodesiac. [passive]

2. Use ‘I’ when discussing your own ideas and actions.
Grammar Trolls will tell you that they're superior life forms...and you're dumb. Don't believe them.If anybody ever told you you couldn’t use the word ‘I’ in a document, you’ve been had by a Grammar Troll. A professional or academic paper, though, should focus on issues, proofs, and ideas, and not on the fact that it’s you who thinks, believes, or imagines them. Readers presume honesty and sanity, assuming that authors mean what they write. So, it is not necessary to say, I think, imagine, know, etc. Detail from the map with sea monsters by Olaus Magnus, published in Venice 1539 in the Carta Marina. It is the earliest map of the Nordic countries and also shows Iceland and a corner of England. This image is from Wikipedia commons, but a detailed version is available in magnified sections at the University of Minnesota.

X mark (The less effective choice for most professional and academic papers.I focus:
I know that the earth is round.

(And we’re all proud of you! If it’s a tricky fact, you want to cite a source. If not, why take personal credit?)

Green check mark Idea focus:
As Eratosthenes (276-195 BCE) clearly showed, the earth is not flat (Siegel).

(Information of this kind, where appropriate,  is not only value added, but something you are not likely to have discovered through experimentation. Always cite the source both in the body of the text and in a works cited section (also sometimes called references, resources, or bibliography).

3. Be careful not only to cite sources correctly but also to obey the laws of fair use.  In business and the professions; failure to cite sources and to get permission to use materials can result in litigation. At university, it can result in charges of Academic Dishonesty.   It’s smart to take a bit of time to familiarize yourselves with fair use and copyright law.  It is not the same for all people, media, or situations.  Educators, for example, have the right to use some materials in certain educational settings that could result in litigation for corporations, or even individuals.

4.Write out numbers below 10, and use numerals for 10 and above.

X mark (The less effective choice for most professional and academic papers. Never start a sentence with a numeral. Seriously.
Slap your little fingers!
NOT: 21 guns were used in the salute.
  Instead: Twenty-one guns were used in the salute.

Dates: When you write a date, do not use a comma if the day is first, but if you put the month first and then the day, you do. Do not use a comma if there is no day given. Here, American style is moving toward European style:

Current Style in most style-sheets: Officer, I last saw her on 7 June 2002, when she gave me back my ring.

Older style: I last saw her on June 7, 2002, when she gave me back my ring.

European style matches the current style: Howard Smith paid his taxes in full on 15 May 2002, and he was never audited.

Check with the style book used in your discipline or course. Once you choose, be consistent.

5. Always use colons in formal letter and memo salutations. (Note: A comma is often used in email memos. Go with your organization’s style-sheet there.) Also, it is never wrong to use a person’s full name. Add earned titles where they exist. When in doubt, remain a bit formal. Yes, even now. It is very easy to move to a less formal voice if you are specifically invited to, but hard to take it back once you find you have overstepped the line. When in doubt, look up titles. By the way, general titles go at the beginning, but specific degrees go after the name: Dr. Sally Smithers or Sally Smithers, Ph.D. (never both); Dr. Fred Flintstone or Fred Flintstone, M.D. Never place titles before and after the name.

Green check markDear Ms. Sally Smithers:

Green check markDear Dr. Sally Smithers:

Green check mark Dear Sally Smithers, M.D.

X mark (The less effective choice for most professional and academic papers.  Dear Dr. Sally Smithers, M.D.

6. Complementary close: Don’t agonize over how to end your letters.

Green check mark“Sincerely,” is always safe. “Best,” or “All the best,” are harmless.

X mark (The less effective choice for most professional and academic papers. “Love,” is never appropriate when writing as your professional self. Save it for private matters and fiction writing.

7. There is no such word as ‘regards’; it’s ‘in regard to your request for… “

8. Initialize memos and sign letters, except when the memo carries legal weight and it’s important to know for sure exactly where it ends and who–precisely and absolutely–knew he or she was signing it. In general, then, do not add a signature block to memos. In general, letters are sent to people outside an organization, while memos are sent within an organization. Emails are sent both places. Often, they are set up in memo format, but they are usually signed rather than initialed.

9. Put it in writing. Always follow up phone messages and brief meetings where things are decided with brief notes reiterating your understanding of the decisions reached in the conversation. This avoids possible confusion. If the other party didn’t see it that way, you certainly want to know that right away. If he or she does not respond, unless there is good reason for the failure, the note you sent is presumed to be correct.

Green check mark Dear Professor Smitherton:
Thank you for meeting with me yesterday. It is my understanding that I now have permission to turn in my ENGL101 paper two days late, which would make the new due date March 5, 2015. I’ll need you to reset the submission permissions on D2L. I will submit it to the Dropbox on or before 11:59 p.m. on the 5th.

Red X mark (Less effective choice.)Thanks, doc! I’ll assume we’re good to go, then.
The problem here is that it is entirely unclear what is understood.  It is wise to be more detailed than this. Remember the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, and why).

Flaming fury! First, get over yourself. Try to communicate when calm. You can't take back wounding words.10. Keep it friendly. Never communicate when you’re volcanically angry. Wait until you calm down. There’s no taking back that nasty email you sent your mom, boss, or professor. That person will remember that long after you get over your mad…and may well hold a grudge and strike back at some point.

Maintain brief notes on the lives of your associates and contacts as part of your address book; then, keep your communications friendly by making brief reference to those little snippets of information. This should be nothing overly personal, just birthdays, family facts, hobbies, etc. You can quickly personalize the communication in a light, friendly way.  Examples: I hear your son’s walking now! Sorry to hear that your dog broke his leg.

Top Ten quick rules Images


AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors, 10th ed., Oxford University Press, 2007. Web. 28 June 2014. [See also: AMA Manual of Style.]

American Psychological Association. Publication Manual Of The American Psychological Association, 7th ed. Washington, DC, 2013.

Associated Press. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, Basic Books, 2013. [See also: AP Stylebook. Web. 28 June 2014.]

Brechner, Robert   Contemporary Mathematics for Business and Consumers. Thomson South-Western, 2005.

The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. University of Chicago Press, 2010. Web. 28 June 2014. [See also: Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide.]

The Chicago Manual of Style: Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. 15th ed. University of Chicago Press, 2003. Print.

Dewdney, A.K. 200% of Nothing: An Eye-Opening Tour Through the Twists & Turns of Math Abuse & Innumeracy. John Wiley and Sons, 1993.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Garble’s Style Manual.  Garble’s Writing Center. 9 January 2007. Web. Found 27 June 2014.

Gillson, Sharon. “The Most Frequent Cause of Heartburn.” About.com. 16 May 2014. Web. Found 3 August, 2014.

Hazlett, Curt.  “Tips to make numbers your best friend.” Web. 28 June 2014.

Linguistic Society of America. “Unified Style Sheet for Linguistics.” (PDF) 3 April 2007. Published by Linguist List. Web. Found 15 July 2014. See also

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2009.

MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2008.

Note: The Modern Language Association publishes two books on its documentation style: the MLA Handbook is intended for high school and undergraduate students; the MLA Style Manual is for graduate students, scholars, and professional writers.

The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. Oxford University Press, 2005. Web. 29 June 2014.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Times Books, 1999.

Norquist, Richard. “Choosing a Style Manual and Style Guide: Popular Style Guides for Students, Researchers, and Professionals.” about education. About.com. (n.d.) Web. 28 June 2014.

The Owl. Purdue University’s Online Writing Center.  2006 Web. 28 June 2014.

Passive Voice.” The Writing Center. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  2014. Web. Found 8 August 2014.

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. (6th ed.) American Psychological Association, 2014. Web. Found 10 July 2014.

Scientific Style and Format : The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers. 8th Ed. Council of Science Editors. University of Chicago Press, 2014. Web. Found 10 July 2014.

Siegel, Ethan. “Who Discovered the Earth is Round?” ScienceBlogs. 21 September 2011. Web. Found 11 July 2011.

Smith, Jennifer. “Paper writing Tips in Linguistics University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Fall, 2011. Web. 15 July 2014.

Stanford University. Tips for Writing a Linguistics Paper.” Excerpted from Linguistics TA Handbook provided by the Linguistics Department of Sanford University. 2013. Web. 15 July 2014.

Turabian, Kate. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students & Researchers, 8th. ed. University of Chicago Press. Print.


The Associated Press Stylebook And Briefing On Media Law 2013. n.p.: Basic Books, 2013. Bibliotheksverbund Bayern. Print.”Grammar Troll” image developed from the “troll” visual meme at All Twitter by MediaBistro.com. 2014. Web. Found 10 July 2014.

“Cliff with Bucket.” Image cropped and manipulated from a larger image at “http://i1.ytimg.com/” about which I can discover nothing.

Tiger after Chicken” Uncyclomedia Commons. 26 May 2011. Web. 10 July 2014.

Detail from map with sea monsters by Olaus Magnus, published in Venice 1539 in the Carta Marina. It is the earliest map of the Nordic countries and also shows Iceland and a corner of England. This image is from Wikipedia commons, but a detailed version is available in magnified sections at the University of Minnesota. [back]



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