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“It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple.” Steve Jobs
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Albert Einstein
“You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.” Jonathan Ivie, Senior Vice President of Design for Apple [replace a product with an idea and parts with words and the quote now applies to writing.
The serial comma (also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma) is the comma placed before a coordinating conjunction (usually and and or, sometimes nor) that precedes the final item in a list of three or more items:
“I visited Norway, France, and Germany.”
The Chicago Manual of Style says to always use it. The Associated Press Stylebook, however, says you do not need it in a simple series (“I like the colors red, blue and yellow.”) but you do in a complex series (“While in Barcelona, we ate at three tapas restaurants, walked down Las Ramblas, and ran along the beach.”).
The trend in professional writing over the last decade or so has been: “the less punctuation, the better.” So you will see some articles in major publications that to not have a serial commas in a complex series, do not use commas to offset a non-restrictive clause beginning with which, do not have a comma before too when it comes at the end of a sentence, and other uses (or non-uses) of punctuation which appear to be errors.
So what’s the final verdict? Use the serial comma at your own discretion, that is, follow your Writer’s Intuition. The reason often quoted for using the serial comma is to prevent sentences like this one which refers to Merle Haggard and appeared in a major newspaper:
“Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”
However, common sense and your Writer’s Intuition tells you such a sentence needs a comma before the and to clear up the confusion. So put one in. But your Writer’s Intuition will tell you the serial comma is not necessary in other cases. For example, “Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and Haggard’s two ex-wives.”
When it comes to business writing, one shortcoming I often see is that companies do not standardize on a set of reference guides that everyone must follow. That’s because many people feel all style guides are the same. They are not.
The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, for example, says to write out numbers one through nine and use numerals for number 10 and above (a real space saver when you are writing newspaper and magazine articles that must fit a fixed number of column inches). The Chicago Manual of Style, however, says to write out numbers one through ninety-nine.
Also the AP Stylebook says the Oxford comma is optional, but The Chicago Manual of Style says to always use it. The AP Stylebook is full of information a journalist would want at his or her fingertips (for example, the difference between murder, homicide and manslaughter) but that a business writer would not.
There are many manuals on the market. If, for instance, you are in the medical industry, you might want to use the AMA Manual of Style.
The bottom line: be consistent throughout your organization. Choose a guide and a dictionary that everyone must use so documents leaving your company are uniform in style.
The Number 1 goal for everything you ever write—from laundry lists to technical reports to resume cover letters—is IMMEDIATE COMPREHENSION. This is the touchstone of good writing. If you don’t “get it” on a first read, the problem is with the writing, not you.
Example: “The IEEE electrical standards referenced by the sponsor in part 3 may be disregarded, subject to the procedures described within the standards, at any time if appropriate guidelines are referenced regarding the strict adherence to common-knowledge electrical procedures for the device in question.”
That’s bad writing. Winston Churchill referred to this type of gobbledy-gook as “terminological inexactitude.” You will find many people—too many, unfortunately—who will fall back on the excuse: “Well, this is technical writing. And it’s complicated. You need a technical background to understand it.”
The problem is that the writer did not take the time to think and hone down the message. Here’s one possible revision: “You may disregard IEEE standards if you follow and document commonly accepted electrical procedures for your device.” Boom! Done!
Writer’s Intuition is an instinct for what is correct or “works” in every assignment you write. It consists of your innate logic, common sense and everything you’ve interalized about writing and reading since the age of five. Everyone has a Writer’s Intuition. You must learn to recognize and develop it. It’s the key skill that separates experienced from inexperienced writers and the missing link in writing instruction. Your Writer’s Intuition helps you make the many judgement calls you encounter when writing. We’ve all heard the rule, “Avoid long sentences.” But how long is a long sentence and how many are too many? You can’t find the answer to that question in any writing guide. But your Writer’s Intuition will tell you.
Good writers have been ending their sentences with prepositions for centuries. The real rule regarding this grammar point is the same rule regarding all sentences: if it sounds awkward, don’t do it (in this case, end your sentence in a preposition). The rule “do not end sentences with prepositions” was an attempt, like many writing rules, to give inexperienced writers the cut-and-dried guidelines they so desperately wanted in order to write correctly “all the time.” Such rules ignore the fact that good writing requires the writer to make subjective judgement calls “all the time” (“Does this sentence sound okay with the preposition at the end, or not?”) and actually lead to bad writing because no one can write well if they try to remember dozens of writing rules while writing.
An anecdote that appeared in Sir Ernest Gowers’ Plain Words (1948) states that an editor once clumsily rearranged one of Churchill’s sentences to avoid ending it in a preposition, and the Prime Minister (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature), scribbled the following note in reply: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”
The title “Plain Writing” is a relatively new term for a very old goal of writing teachers around the world. In 1664, the Royal Society of England set up a committee (which included the poet, John Dryden, and the diarist, Samuel Pepys) to recommend ways to improve writing skills. Their advice: writers should aim to achieve “a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expression; clear senses; a native easinesse, bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainnesse, as they can.”
“For more than forty years, I have studied the documents that public companies file. Too often, I’ve been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said…. There are several possible explanations as to why I and others sometimes stumble over an accounting note or indenture description…. Perhaps the most common problem, however, is that a well-intentioned and informed writer simply fails to get the message across to an intelligent, interested reader. In that case, stilted jargon and complex constructions are usually the villain.”