The Grammar Factor: writing standards, while/whilst, can?

Writing standards for clear communication

Dana Skopal, PhD, wrote a blog for my Write to Govern website recently, but what she says applies to all writing. Here’s an excerpt from the blog:

‘Many people would view writing as putting sentences together and using correct grammar and punctuation. Sentences, grammar and punctuation may have been how writing was taught in the past, but time and technology have changed that. Technology has also changed how we read.

‘My recent readability research has shown that readers require more structure when dealing with information documents and our writing processes need to reflect that. Therefore, any writing standards that enable clear communication for the reader need to include steps or benchmarks for writers to follow and use as an editing checklist. Good writing is like information design, and this approach takes staff’s understanding of writing standards to a different level.’

Read the rest of the blog.

If you live in Sydney, you may be interested in a half-day workshop Dana and I are running at the Governance Institute on 7 July on benchmarking your board pack from a writing perspective.

A question and a comment

Question: How should we punctuate a list that starts with ‘can’ and technically needs a question mark? For example:

Can you please let me know:

  • Time
  • Attendees
  • Price

Answer: You don’t need a question mark with a polite request even if Microsoft Word thinks you do!

While and whilst
On this site, I comment that ‘while’ and ‘whilst’ mean the same thing and that I prefer ‘while’.

A reader said: ‘I have always regarded the word “whilst” as operating as the equivalent of “although” and the word “while” as being a strictly time-related descriptor – used to indicate that “at the time of the event of which I am speaking”.

‘While I was reading your article, it occurred to me that whilst I would grant you the right to hold that opinion, I would regard it as being incorrect.’

What do you think? Email

Pet peeves

Keep a sharp eye on
I have flown with Qantas recently, and the safety briefing says ‘keep a sharp eye on the cabin crew’. I realise that ‘keep a sharp eye on…’ is idiomatic (similar to ‘keep your eyes peeled’), but this expression grates on me and I wonder if it is appropriate for international passengers.

Adding unnecessary prepositions
A reader said: ‘I’ve been watching MasterChef avidly and have noticed a curious thing. When it comes to cooking, people have started adding prepositions to verbs that don’t need them. This malady afflicts contestants, professional chefs and judges alike. The phrase is usually preceded by. ‘I’ll just…’.

‘I’ll just:
• sweat down the onions
• saute off the scallions
• cook off the meat
• render out the fat
• cook out the vegies
• caramelise off the meat
• get that sealed off

‘These examples were from just one episode. ‘Down’, ‘off’ and ‘out’ seem to be the main culprits. I can only assume they’ve been shoved in to make the statements sound more professional. Home cooks just cook; real chefs ‘cook off’ or ‘out’ or ‘down’!

‘Has anyone else noticed unnecessary prepositions creeping into any other walks of life? For instance, does a surgeon “seal an artery” or “seal off an artery”?’

Interesting stuff about writing

I regularly post articles about writing on my Facebook page, but have selected a few for you here.

Podcasts about language
I recently discovered these great podcasts by emeritus professor Roly Sussex.

10 grammar rules you can forget: how to stop worrying and write proper
Guardian Style Guide author David Marsh set out to master perfect grammatical English – but discovered that ‘correct’ isn’t always best.

The trickiest English words to pronounce
Do you have difficulty pronouncing ‘phenomenon’? You’re not alone.

Quote of the month

‘For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.’
T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’


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