Tricks of the Trade: Diction–Finding the Best Words

The next trick of the trade is one that seems obvious, but it’s one that many new writers do not consciously practice when they write and revise: diction (also called word choice).

The key to effective diction is to search consciously for the best, most specific word. However, the best word isn’t necessarily mean the longest, fanciest word. (That’s an error my freshman students often make–they sacrifice their natural prose in attempts to sound “smart” or “intellectual.”) Oftentimes, the best word is a short but specific one. Choose nouns that include adjectives, and use verbs that include adverbs. Consider the following example:

to run swiftly = to sprint

Think about what the verb sprint means: it includes both the verb run and the adverb swiftly. Instead of using the vague verb run and then adding an adverb to it for more specific meaning, just begin with a more vivid, specific verb, like sprint.

Likewise, avoid vague nouns like thing, and avoid overusing do as your main action verb. Use specific language to paint a clear picture of your precise ideas in the mind of your reader. When discussing people, avoid overusing vague words like person and one. Unless you are discussing some universal type of person (a very rare occurrence), find a more specific type of person than the word person. (Note: I will share a list of frequently overused vague words in an upcoming diction article.)

Consider this example. Notice how dull the sentence is:

One should try to use the most specific diction to best transmit thoughts to another person.

Note the two vague people-nouns, marked in red:

One should try to use the most specific diction to best transmit thoughts to another person.

Now replace those vague nouns with specific nouns. This is what we are really trying to express:

The new writer should try to use the most specific diction to best transmit thoughts to the reader.

Now, let’s make it even more vivid by using even more descriptive nouns and verbs, and by adding adjectives where they are most effective:

The novice writer should strive to use the most specific diction to best transmit pinpointed, vivid thoughts to the reader. (Now we’re cooking!)

Don’t Overuse Adjectives and Adverbs

Now, while adjectives and adverbs can be very helpful, do not overuse such descriptors in an attempt to make your writing more descriptive or vivid. At times—perhaps simply as a matter of practice—challenge yourself not to use them at all. They will, of course, sneak in from time to time, but give it your best shot. The key is not to force them.

At this point, you are probably asking, “But why avoid descriptive words? Shouldn’t I be descriptive in my writing?”

It’s a good question, to be sure. Here’s the key: Adjectives and adverbs are not the only descriptive words we can use. Nouns and verbs are also descriptive. In fact, the best nouns and verbs are self-descriptive, and they are better at describing themselves than adjectives and adverbs. In other words, these nouns and verbs have built-in adjectives (for nouns) and adverbs (for verbs). The description is in the word itself.

You’ve probably had enough of the theory, so here is an example of a weak adjective-noun construction:

Bill realized at that moment that he could not drive in for the slam dunk because of the large man standing guard under the net. (adjective-noun construction marked in red)

The diction above is weak because the writer is using an adjective (large) to add flavor and detail to a vague, non-descriptive noun (man). Instead of trying to dress up a boring noun with outside description, why not just change the noun itself? For example, consider this improvement:

Bill realized at that moment that he could not drive in for the slam dunk because of the giant standing guard under the net. (giant = large + man)

And now we have even more choices. What are other words that can mean “large man” in this sentence? Here are a few:

colossus, monster, hulk, tower, beast, tower of a man, etc.

See how that works? Use vivid nouns that contain their own descriptions. Oh, and here’s one more point: Have fun with it!

Let’s go further down this rabbit hole by applying this same way of thinking to adverb-verb constructions. Here’s an example:

Seeing the futility of driving in for a dunk, Bill deceptively stepped back and then carefully took a shot from twenty feet away. (adverb-verb constructions marked in red)

Now, how about this:

Seeing the futility of driving in for a dunk, Bill popped a fade-away from twenty feet away. (Now we’re cooking!)

Now, from here we can add any additional adjectives and adverbs if we really need them. For example, I might use an adverb to show Bill’s intentions and way of thinking:

Seeing the futility of driving in for a dunk, Bill cleverly popped a fade-away from twenty feet away. (Now we’re cooking with fire!)

The key is that I did not add an adverb to a vague verb. I took an already vivid verb and qualified it even further. Likewise, always choose a descriptive, specific noun before adding any adjectives, and make sure that those adjectives are really necessary before you add them.

Next Up:

Revising for Word Choice: A Working Method

“It looks easy enough,” you might be thinking. “But you just make diction look easy with those examples. What am I to do when I am sitting in front of my computer, trying to find the best words? What if they don’t come to me when I’m writing?”

Fret not, dear reader: the next article shares a step-by-step working method for improving diction in any piece of writing. Trust me: you’ll want to read this one!

  • Revision for Word Choice: A Working Method (I will post this article soon.)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Parallel Structures: Examples from MLK

The previous Tricks of the Trade article explained applications of parallel sentence structures for creating flowing, rhythmic writing. Now, in this new Tricks of the Trade article, I want to share examples of parallel structures at work in the prose of a powerful, canonical essayist. I am

using Martin

My dedication to MLK in Minecraft

My dedication to MLK in Minecraft

Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as our ongoing example for Tricks of the Trade, since King’s essay showcases all of the techniques discussed in this series—and since it uses each of these techniques many times over. Let’s turn once again to MLK’s classic civil rights essay as we explore examples of parallel structure at work.

About reading these passages: I have color coded the parallel structures within the passages below. In some passages, you might notice two or more colors. Each color is a different parallel structure pattern within the example.

Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own hometown.

The sentence below (which occurs several pages after the example sentence above) uses the same parallel structure seen above by using the phrase “just as”—but this time King uses the phrase to establish a parallel between his actions and those of the ancient Greek philosopher and teacher Socrates. This repeated phrase, “just as,” shows how parallel structures can link ideas across different sentences, paragraphs, and pages. From there, MLK will use another parallel structure for comparing the actions of nonviolent resisters to the teachings of Socrates:

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

King also uses parallel structures from sentence to sentence to showcase the larger thematic unity those sentences share. Here’s an example:

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?

By the way, have you noticed the repetition of Christian and Socratic themes in these passages? King brings up Jesus and Socrates quite often in this essay. Why? Considering King’s original audience (eight clergymen who had spoken out against his actions in Birmingham), these two examples from religion and western culture are perfectly fitting. They are precisely the best examples that King could have used for winning over his audience. In the course of his letter/essay, King also invokes the the Founding Fathers, the Apostle Paul, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, John Bunyan, and Abraham Lincoln. Why do you think King uses such a range of (white and Jewish) figures to validate the points he makes in this essay? This side-note takes us back to the first trick of the trade: writing for our audience. If you missed that (crucial) article, click here to read it.

In addition to using parallel structures to organize and align long sentences (as seen above), King also uses parallel structures in short sentences—and to great effect. Consider this famous sentence drawn from King’s essay:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Here are more short sentences with parallel structures:

Example:

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”

Example:

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

Example:

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

A Few More Examples from MLK

Here are more examples of parallel structure within “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that I find especially powerful. Read these passages aloud, and as you do so, feel their undeniable passion and power.

Example:

Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Example:

You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

Example:

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts, and pray long prayers?

Example:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

That last example illustrates how, by being nearly the same, parallel structures emphasize their seemingly small differences. Why is the use of God in place of you effective in that second parallel structure? What statement does that small change make? What is the greater evil, in MLK’s eyes: to be impatient for one’s rights–or to wait too long? King gives us the answer: it’s right there in the small one-word difference between those two parallel structures. Read it again and consider this point.

Next Up:

Diction: Finding the Best Words

Although the way we structure our sentences is important (as we have seen), equally important are the words we use within those sentences. With that point in mind, the next set of articles in Tricks of the Trade will help you strengthen your word choices by sharing specific methods for finding the best words to convey your ideas and assertions.

  • Diction: Finding the Best Words (I will post this article soon.)

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998. 188-204. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Parallel Structures–Writing with Rhythm

Whenever you include multiple items or clauses in a long sentence, write them all with similar word and phrase patterns. Long sentences that do not have these parallel structures are often hard to follow.

For example, here is a sentence that is difficult to read:

Bob enjoys many activities: going hiking, chess, his friends, to play his old Nintendo, and reading detective novels.

The writer did not use parallel structures for expressing these items. The ideas unify in a thematic sense (since they are all activities Bob enjoys), but the writing does not reflect that unity. The sentence can be adjusted to align content (what is said) with style (how it is said). The writer can do this by using a parallel gerund pattern. (A gerund is formed by adding –ing to the end of a verb so that the word then functions as something else, usually a noun.)

Here is the resulting sentence, with the parallel gerund pattern underlined:

Bob enjoys many activities: going hiking, playing chess, hanging out with his friends, playing his old Nintendo, and reading detective novels.

This sentence can be improved further by beginning with the shortest item and progressing towards the longest one. This way, there is yet another pattern:

Bob enjoys many activities: playing chess, going hiking, reading detective novels, playing his old Nintendo, and hanging out with his friends.

This sentence provides an even better reading experience than the first revision because now it has an ordered pattern. Sentences that show patterns are easier to read than those that are random and chaotic. On top of that, parallel structures let writers take control of long sentences. With parallel structures in your sentences, you’ll write much longer sentences than you may have thought you could—and those sentences, despite their length, will be surprisingly easy to read.

In addition to helping present phrase items in a series (as seen above), parallel structures are useful for presenting sentences with multiple clauses. Here is an example of parallel structure using clauses:

Although Bob enjoys many leisure activities, and although he has many friends, most of his time is spent focusing on his career.

Notice how both dependent clauses in the example above begin with the word although. This creates a pattern, and it holds the reader’s attention, even in a long sentence. Read the sentence aloud; do you hear the rhythm?

Here is another example. However, this new parallel structure uses to before each verb. (This “to + verb” formation is called the infinitive form.)

A strong writer seeks to achieve three main goals: to reason with sound logic, to communicate with clear language, and to empathize with thoughtful appeals.

The writer could convert the infinitive pattern to an –ing (gerund) pattern:

A strong writer seeks to achieve three main goals: reasoning with sound logic, communicating with clear language, and empathizing with thoughtful appeals.

(What additional change was made? Consider this point.)

Parallel Structures: A Stunning Example from MLK

Utilizing parallel structures can create much longer sentences than the examples shared above. For example, look at the sentence below, written by Martin Luther King, Jr., and as you do so, behold the unbridled power and unadulterated majesty of parallel structures:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are), and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will know why we find it difficult to wait.

Powerful, isn’t it? What is the parallel structure here? What are the words that King repeats in every dependent clause? What effects do they have on you as you read? Think about these points as you consider the power and effectiveness of parallel sentence structures.

Next Up: More Examples from MLK

As we have done in previous Tricks of the Trade articles, we will look once again to the writing of MLK–this time for examples of parallel structures at their best. If you want to observe the effective use of parallel structures within sentences, you need look no further than the prose of MLK.

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998. 188-204. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Addressing Counterarguments: Examples from MLK

In the previous Tricks of the Trade article, we looked at a new technique: addressing counterarguments. A counterargument is a point of disagreement or doubt that a reader might raise while reading your writing—a moment where the reader says, about a point you are making, “But I disagree with your point here.” It’s your job as the writer to be aware of such counterarguments (at least, the most likely ones) and to address those counterarguments.

At this point, you might be thinking, “But how can I think of all possible counterarguments my readers might raise?” Well, the sad fact is, you can’t think of all possible counterarguments. However, by tackling the most probable counterarguments, your chances of winning over more readers will increase. And, even if you bring out counterarguments that a reader does not raise, your counterargument still helps to win the reader’s respect since (1) you come across as the kind of writer who cares about readers’ concerns and (2) you come across as the kind of writer who attempts to cover all bases in posing an argument. (By the way, did you notice that I used this short paragraph to address a counterargument that my reader might raise? Were you thinking to raise this counterargument just as I mentioned it here?)

If you read the previous Tricks of the Trade article, then you should be clear on what a counterargument is and how it is essentially posed. (And if you didn’t read that article yet, I suggest that you click here to read it before continuing to read this article.) However, the previous article did not share real examples of counterarguments at work within their larger context.

With that point in mind, I have written this article to provide examples of counterarguments drawn from a real essay. When considering the counterargument and how it works, there’s no better place to look than the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr.—particularly his classic essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

As the title implies, MLK penned this letter (now anthologized as an essay) from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where he and other civil rights protestors were being held simply for making their voices heard in thMLK Image for W Toolboxe segregationist Jim Crow south of 1963. While imprisoned, MLK read a newspaper article written by eight clergymen, all of them arguing that MLK and the other nonviolent protestors were “extremists” and that the protestors should simply wait for what (the clergymen thought) would be inevitable change. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was MLK’s response to these eight clergymen. MLK argues in his letter that civil rights equality would not simply happen with time and that change happens only because people take a stand for equality and strive to make it a reality.

I should note, before sharing these excerpts, that MLK was already aware of many of these counterarguments because these arguments had already been raised against the actions of MLK and other nonviolent civil rights protestors. He had the advantage of already being aware of the opposition’s core arguments, and he harnessed that advantage to full effect.

As you read the passages below, notice how MLK does not merely bring up counterarguments as side-notes or “by the way” points. He actually uses the counterarguments to drive this essay, going from addressing one counterargument to addressing the next one.

Counterargument Excerpts: “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

The counterarguments below, drawn from MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” are color coded so that each counterargument (marked in red) stands out from MLK’s response(s) to each counterargument (marked in green).

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.

King immediately moves to another counterargument—one that would be raised in response to the way he addressed the first counterargument (immediately above):

My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Leaving no possible counterargument unaddressed, King moves on one paragraph later to address the next logical counterargument: the argument that, even if it is right to create nonviolent, productive tension, the timing is not right for that tension:

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.

Another counterargument that King confronts is the accusation that the nonviolent resisters were breaking laws and that this point invalidated their cause. Let’s look at how King discusses and dismantles this new counterargument:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

King goes on for several paragraphs to present even more responses to this counterargument. But perhaps none of these responses resonates as powerfully as this passage, where King draws upon what was (and still is) an all-too-familiar example of racial prejudice when carried out to its worst extreme:

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.

The passage above is especially fitting for King’s audience, since he is responding to Jewish as well as Christian clergy. Consider the other Judeo-Christian references King makes in this essay and how those references are especially effective, considering that he is writing for clergy. As discussed in the first Tricks of the Trade technique, King is aware of his audience and he writes accordingly.

The final counterargument I will cite (but certainly not the last one in King’s essay) is one of the central accusations brought against King and the other nonviolent protesters in Birmingham: the accusation that the protestors were extremists. King addresses this particular counterargument with two (very different) arguments: (1) the point that the truly dangerous “extremists” in the civil rights movement are those who advocate violence and (2) the point that the term extremist is not bad in and of itself, but depends upon what one chooses to be an extremist for. King puts the counterargument to rest—twice over:

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. [. . .] The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.” [. . .] So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

Here is King’s second response to the accusation of extremism:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? [. . .] Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Do you feel the power of King’s response? Effective writing—it doesn’t get any better than this.

Next Up: Parallel Sentence Structure

One reason for the effectiveness of King’s response (just above) is that it employs yet another technique I want to discuss in Tricks of the Trade: parallel sentence structure. Notice how King’s sentences often repeat the same syntax and word patterns, creating a rhythm from sentence to sentence, holding the reader’s attention but at the same time reinforcing the point that the concepts the sentences convey also share parallels. (Similarities in language reflect similarities in ideas.)

Look again at the passage—this time formatted with parallel structures underlined:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? [. . .] Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

In addition to the underlined portions sharing word and phrase patterns, notice as well the larger repeated structure, where King gives the name of the historical figure, followed by a colon and then a quotation. This too is a parallel sentence structure. (One delightful aspect of King’s writing is his ability to embed parallel structures within parallel structures.)

Want to learn more about using parallel sentence structures to make your writing more moving and effective? (Of course you do!) To learn more, click the link below:

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998. 188-204. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to Christopher Altmanwriting this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Creating Transitions between Sentences

Whenever you shift the discussion in a new sentence, you need to make a clear transition. Never drop your readers. Keep them reading.

But how do we keep them reading? Look at the example below, drawn from a student essay. Notice how these two sentences lack transition:

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

Do you see ways to make a transition here? Here are the three main methods:

1. Combine the sentences into one, and let that single sentence act as the bridge from one point into the next.

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom, but scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(The coordinating conjunction but creates the transition.)

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom; however, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(The conjunctive adverb however combines these sentences. It’s similar to but; however, it shows more of a pause than but does. Read the sentence aloud. Do you hear that brief but thoughtful pause?)

Although many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(The relative adverb although makes the first sentence into a dependent relative clause. This has the same overall effect as but or however, but the sentence is intoned differently. Do you hear it? Has the emphasis changed a bit? What is prioritized in this sentence?)

2. Keep the sentences separate, but put a word or phrase in the second sentence that refers back to the first one.

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Still, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(A single word can create a transition. Amazing isn’t it: the difference one word makes?)

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Despite this position among some religious communities, scientists think Creationism is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(A phrase or clause may be necessary if you want a more substantial connection.)

3. Insert an entire sentence between the two sentences to connect them.

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Such proponents include conservative-Christian parents, pastors, and politicians, but—since this is a discussion about science—we should ask what scientists have to say about the issue. The overwhelming majority of them think Creationism is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(Do you sense a bit more persuasive push here? Consider how the writer created this new tone. Also, apply this longer approach when you want a fully explained transition. Never hesitate to lay out all of the details, if you feel that it is necessary.)

So, do you want to use method 1, 2, or 3? Which one is best?

The answer, as you may have guessed by now, is that there is no best method. The method you choose depends on your intention as a writer and the degree to which you want to connect the two ideas or statements. And sometimes, you should consider unconventional methods, such as the transition I created in this sentence (yes, the one you are reading right now). Notice how I opened that new sentence with the coordinating conjunction and. Although I did not use it to fully combine two sentences (by using a comma + and combination), I started the new sentence with and to create a small reference back to the previous point. There are many other ways to create transition; as you continue to write and to hone your transitions, you will naturally add new transition tools to your writer’s toolbox.

At this point, some readers might be thinking, “Wait–I shouldn’t start sentences with words like and or but! My teachers constantly told me never to do that.” If you picked up this particular writing prohibition somewhere along the course of your life, you have been misinformed. Most people learn this false rule in elementary school or middle school, when such absolute rules held meaning for teaching children the basics of writing. But now as an adult writer, it’s time to progress beyond the rules of childhood writing so that you can embrace the limitless world of true effective writing.

If you feel your writing process being hindered and halted by such rules, you should read my new book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English. It addresses this sentence-starting conjunction myth, as well as many other writing myths learned in childhood. If you’d like to learn more, here’s a link to the book’s introduction:

Two Kinds of Sentence-to-Sentence Transitions: Positive vs. Negative

Here is one additional point to note about sentence transitions: there are two types of connections to make: positive and negative. In the examples above, we have been dealing with a negative connection, or one that shows a contradiction or difference between two points–what we might call but or however points.

Now let’s explore positive connections. Positive connections show the idea of “in addition to” or “also.” Positive transitions show how the two ideas you are expressing are alike. Here is an example:

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom. So too do many conservative-Christian parents.

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom, and many conservative-Christian parents do this as well.

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom; in addition, many conservative-Christian parents call for this practice.

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom. Following the example of their religious leaders, many conservative-Christian parents call for this practice as well.

Here are some words and phrases for expressing positive connections:

and     in addition     also     another      as well      furthermore      moreover

Negative: A transition that shows a contradiction or difference between two points. Here are some words and phrases for expressing negative connections:

but     yet     however     conversely     despite     on the other hand     although

So, here is the first question to ask yourself: “Is the connection I hope to show positive, or is it a negative connection?

Here’s the second question to ask: “To what degree (and with what tone) do I want to show this connection?”

Once you have the answer to those two questions, you will know what to do, so long as you remember some of these transition techniques.

Next Up: Dealing with Readers’ Counterarguments

Have you ever been reading an essay or article, and you find yourself disagreeing with what the reader says in a sentence or paragraph? Or did you find that the writer did not address a matter that you thought was important to the discussion? Did the writer’s failure to address such points cause you to disbelieve the writer’s main point? Or, even if you did buy into the main point, were you still a bit less convinced than you might have been, had the writer addressed those nagging points?

Well, dear reader, here’s some bad news: your readers will judge your writing the same way, since they will expect you to address their concerns, doubts, and disagreements—and if you don’t address those matters, chances are, your writing will not achieve full success.

But here’s the good news: there’s a technique for handling these matters in writing, and it’s a technique you can hone with practice. It’s a way not only to redirect the reader’s doubts and disagreements, but also to create even more transition and continuity in your writing. I call that technique “addressing counterarguments.” In fact, for the best writers, addressing counterarguments is often the driving force behind the flow of the writing: the way the writing progresses from paragraph to paragraph, discussion to discussion, topic to topic. Want to learn more? Click the link below.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Creating Transitions between Paragraphs

One key to effective writing is making the prose flow from one part to the next. The reader should never feel like a new discussion or sentence just drops on her out of nowhere. This practice of creating flow is called transition.

Opening Note: As you read this article on transitions between paragraphs, please note that I am underlining my own uses of this technique within this article. Wherever you see an underline, I am pointing out a place where I have made a paragraph-to-paragraph transition.

One important place to create transition is when moving from one paragraph to the next. Whenever you present a new paragraph, frame it as stemming from or acknowledging your discussion in the previous paragraph. This does not mean you should restate the content of the previous paragraph, but it does mean you should at least include some kind of transitional word, phrase, clause, or sentence as you open each new paragraph discussion. The length and depth of your transition depend on how strong of a connection you want to make.

How do we create that connection? Here are three standard ways to accomplish transition between any two paragraphs:

1. Refer back to the previous paragraph. Have the first sentence of the second paragraph refer back to the last sentence of the first paragraph.

2. Project forward to the next paragraph. Have the last sentence of the first paragraph hint at what is to come in the second paragraph. The word hint is emphasized because subtlety works best when applying this approach. This particular approach creates suspense in readers, making them wonder what the writer is going to say next.

3. Both 1 and 2 to create a very strong, fully realized connection. Just be careful not to overstate the connection. (After all, while we do want to be helpful to our readers, we don’t want to insult their intelligence. Balance is the key.)

Written below is at an example of a paragraph break without a transition. Imagine that a student is writing a persuasive essay arguing for the benefits of stem cell research. In the student’s first attempt, the paragraph break is present, but there is no transition bridging the two ideas:

. . . Having looked at the arguments against stem cell research, we see that they are erroneous because the opponents of stem cell research assume that embryonic stem cells can come only from fetuses, which is not true.

Many opponents of stem cell research try to base their arguments solely on religious texts. However, such opponents should consider additional arguments, since many Americans do not believe in those same sacred texts and since religious Americans hold varying interpretations of those texts.

Notice how that second paragraph just jumps out at the reader. While the writer may have seen it coming (because the writer is already familiar with the connections), the reader does not necessarily see those connections. So, with that point in mind, the writer should make a transition for the reader. This transition will be a dependent clause, which is attached to the opening of the second paragraph (the first type of transition listed above):

. . . Having looked at the arguments against stem cell research, we see that they are erroneous because the opponents of stem cell research assume that embryonic stem cells come only from fetuses, which is not true.

     While such opponents ignore scientific facts to oppose embryonic stem cell research, many of those same opponents try to base their arguments solely on religious texts. However, such opponents should consider additional arguments, since many Americans do not believe in those same sacred texts and since religious Americans hold varying interpretations of those texts.

See how that works? Now the first paragraph gives rise to the second paragraph, and the reader has a smooth ride from one paragraph to the next. The ideas now relate, showing unity—but, even more important, the writer has facilitated the reading experience by emphasizing precisely how those paragraphs relate.

Here are some simple words, phrases, and sentences that create transition:

In addition,

Next,

Also,

For example,

For instance,

Now that we have looked at X, we should look at Y.

After having considered X, let’s also consider Y.

Related to this concept of X is Y.

At this point, readers may think Y, so we should consider that point further.

As we have seen, X. This leads us to the next point, Y.

On the other hand, . . .

Now let’s consider a very different example.

etc. . . . There are many more ways to create transition.

No matter which of the listed (or unlisted) techniques you decide to use, always aim to create seamless flow in your writing. Sometimes a single word like also will do fine, but at other times writers will include an entire sentence (or two) to make a transition. No matter what kind of transition you choose to make, always think about your choice, and make a point of being creative.

Finally, when considering how to create transitions, remember that a transition creates one crucial desired effect for the reader: a seamless reading experience, from the first page to the last. This flow keeps our readers doing just what we want them to be doing: reading.

Next Up: Transitions between Sentences

This article has shared some ways to create transition from one paragraph to the next. But equally important to creating flow between paragraphs is maintaining that same level of flow within paragraphs by creating sentence-to-sentence transitions. With that goal in mind, the next Tricks of the Trade article shares a range of techniques for creating constant transition between every sentence you write.

  • Creating Transitions between Sentences (I will have this article posted soon.)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know–Technique Number One: Imagine and Project a Reader

Look again at the title of this article. I describe this writing practice as “Technique Number One” because writing for an actual reader is the driving force behind all of the other techniques discussed in this Tricks of the Trade series. Think about it: as writers, we should create flow in our writing for our readers. We use clear word choices to get our ideas across clearly to our readers. We use parallel sentence structures to help keep our readers on track. Essentially, good writing is all about the effects we have on our readers. Whether we’re making a sentence more concise and logical or making the choice to add a new paragraph discussion, every choice we make as writers is ultimately for the purpose of better reaching and winning over our readers.

But what does it mean to “imagine and project a reader”? It’s simple: when you write, don’t think so much about the many rules you have learned about grammar, spelling, sentence length, etc. Sure, those rules have their place (well, some of them do, anyway), but that place is secondary to a higher purpose: affecting your readers in the way(s) that you hope to affect them. With that larger goal in mind, consider the fact that an actual human being–or group of human beings!–will be reading what you are writing.

Think about who those human beings are. Are they Americans, or are you writing for an international audience? Are they adults, or are they children–or young adults? Do they have college educations? Are they informed on the topic–or do you need to get them up to speed? Are they religious or nonreligious—or is it a mix? What are their social and/or political views? Do they belong to a certain profession? Write with these considerations in mind.

Writing for Your Audience: An Example

In some cases, you will know a bit about your reading audience. For example, if writing an essay for an engineering professor, you know a bit about that audience. You know that your audience is well informed, and you also know the field in which your audience works. So, with that reader in mind, here’s the key question to ask yourself while writing that essay: “What is important to an engineer?” You might also ask yourself the broader question: “What is important to any professor?” With those points in mind, you’d best get your math right, you should present clear diagrams and research, and you’d better not have any typos. (After all, engineers are looking for a close attention to details, and that includes proofreading and keeping the writing typo-free!)

Last, but certainly not least, you will need to produce content that your audience (in this case, an engineering professor) will find intriguing but also one that is based on the lessons learned in the course. One great way to make that essay intriguing would be to go one step beyond what the professor taught you about the topic. If, for example, the professor taught you how to apply hydrodynamics to better understand plumbing installed in a skyscraper, then you might take that concept and apply it elsewhere by writing an essay on the hydrodynamics of underground structures. Would your professor like that move? Would she appreciate you taking what she taught you and applying it to your own areas of interest? Chances are, she would–but there’s also a chance that she would want you to stick with the core material in the course, including the applications. This is where knowing your audience is useful. Did you ever hear her say, “Plumbing is only one example of hydrodynamics at work. I challenge you to think of other areas where we see it.” If she said that (or something close), then it’s safe to say that you kn0w what to write for her.

Ever aware of my audience, I know that many of my readers are not college students. However, the same basic concept applies: if you know your audience, write accordingly. If you are writing to your boss in hopes of a promotion, think about your boss’s expectations. (You might also think about the larger company and its expectations.) If you are writing to a senator asking him to support your cause, consider his platform and his political philosophies. If you are writing a letter to a friend who has lost a parent, then write with your friend’s personality in mind. Think about what makes her laugh. Think about shared experiences that might cheer her up. Think about whether she is the kind of person who desires a show of sympathy in times of loss or whether she just prefers to talk about other (happier) topics. No matter the writing situation, use whatever you know about your reader to win that reader over to your desired effect for the writing.

(A related note for college students: As a professor–and as someone who knows many other professors–I can say that most professors like to see their students take core concepts beyond what is taught in the course. This is one key difference between high-school-level thinking and the thinking we expect to see in college-level work: while professors do want to see students learn facts, those facts are often worthless if they are not applied elsewhere. Most professors are not looking for regurgitation of basics; we are hoping that our students take the lessons of the course to heart and allow those lessons to change the ways that they think about other matters.)

But What if I Don’t Know Who My Audience Is?

In other cases, you will have no clue who your precise audience is, so you will write for a broad audience. Here’s the good news: there are many writing practices that work for all audiences. In such cases, the only assumption you should make is that your reader will be attentive and will try to read your essay fully and carefully. In other words, the one thing you do know is this: your reader is a reader.

So what it is that all readers need and appreciate? The best way to answer this question is to apply the “Golden Rule of Writing”:

The Golden Rule of Writing: Write for others the way that you would want them to write for you.

In other words, think about the kind of reading experience you would like to have when reading. You want to read writing that flows naturally and is easy to read. You want to read writing that is typo-free. You want to read writing that makes intriguing and even life changing points. You want the writer’s jokes to make you laugh (and you want them to be jokes that make you laugh until you piss yoursel—um. . . I mean, that make you laugh yourself silly!). With those points in mind, write to create the very same kind of reading experience you would appreciate if you were the one reading. Chances are, when it comes to basic expectations for the reading experience, your readers are a lot like you. Think about what those readers want, need, and expect–and write accordingly.

This is the number-one rule of all good writing. If you aren’t doing this, you aren’t really writing.

Next Up:

Transition: Making It Flow

As you read about the Tricks of the Trade techniques in upcoming articles, consider how all of these techniques fall under the overarching writing practice of imagining and serving your readers. The next article on creating flow and transition is a good example. As you read about ways to create transition in your writing, consider the reason for creating transition: to serve your readers with the same kind of natural, flowing writing that you would want to read.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Brackets: Making Additions to Quotations

Brackets are the square cousins of parentheses. [Brackets look like this.] Use brackets to show insertions of your own language or ideas into a quotation. This way, you stay true to the original source, while having the freedom to adjust the language to make it more stylistically or grammatically fitting to the context in which you are presenting it.

Confusing? An example will serve best. Let’s suppose that you want to quote the following sentence from Judith Ortiz Cofer’s essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria”:

“I still experience a vague sense of letdown when I’m invited to a ‘party’ and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration I remember from my childhood.”

How can you share this quote out of its context, while maintaining a clear connection with the original context? How can you subtly answer the larger question of what Ortiz Cofer’s essay is about, while remaining focused on your own reason(s) for sharing the quote?

The answer: brackets! Here’s how to do it:

In her essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria,” Judith Ortiz Cofer writes about how she “still experience[s] a vague sense of letdown when [she is] invited to ‘a party’ [in America] and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration [she] remember[s] from [her] childhood” growing up in Puerto Rico.

Listed below are the bracket applications used in the Ortiz Cofer quotation. Also, here’s a color-coded version of the quote. The bracket techniques listed below correspond to the color code, so feel free to reference the color-coded quote to see the examples of these applications:

In her essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria,” Judith Ortiz Cofer writes about how she “still experience[s] a vague sense of letdown when [she is] invited to ‘a party’ [in America] and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration [she] remember[s] from [her] childhood” growing up in Puerto Rico.

Brackets can add elements like –s endings to words: Notice that the Ortiz Cofer quote above uses brackets in different ways to adjust the language of the quote. While some brackets set off entire words and phrases, other brackets set off parts of words. For example, consider the first use of brackets in the Ortiz Cofer quote above: the brackets allow the writer to add an –s ending to “experience” so that the verb agrees in number with the pronoun she. To say, “she still experience a vague sense of letdown” is inconsistent because the subject and verb do not match–an error called “subject-verb disagreement.” The –s needs to be added to experience to make the verb align with the subject, she, so that we have the phrase, “she still experiences.” However, since the additional –s ending is not part of the original material, the writer sets it off in brackets: “experience[s].”

Brackets can replace original words or phrases with new language: The next bracket in the sentence replaces I’m with she is to make the quote align with the perspective of the writer who is quoting Ortiz Cofer. Since the writer thinks of Ortiz Cofer as she and not as I, the writer can use brackets to replace pronouns accordingly.

Brackets can insert new words or phrases into a quotation: The inserted phrase “in America” clarifies the sentence for the reader, since that reader does not have the context of the entire essay to explain the point that Ortiz Cofer is commenting on how parties in America differ from parties in her homeland of Puerto Rico. One well placed bracketed insertion allows the writer to highlight that context while sharing the quotation.

Brackets are not needed to add material immediately before or after the quote. Use brackets only for insertions within the quotation marks: After the end of the quote, the writer adds “growing up in Puerto Rico” but does not use brackets to do so. Likewise, before the quote begins, the writer uses the pronoun she to replace the original first-person pronoun, I. When considering bracket use, this is a good technique to consider: at the beginning and end of the quotation, the writer can add parts without using brackets, so long as those changes occur outside the quotation marks. Use brackets only for changes that occur within the quoted material. With this point in mind, the writer can make adjustments to the language of the quote simply by choosing where to begin and end the quotation.

Additional bracket applications

Use a bracketed ellipsis to remove or skip material in a quote: The ellipsis is the three-dot symbol: . . . When it is bracketed, the ellipsis looks like this: [. . .]. One use of the ellipsis is to show that part of a quotation is being omitted or skipped. Some writers simply insert a non-bracketed ellipsis into the quote. Although the non-bracketed ellipsis is perfectly acceptable, it can lead to problems if the writer is quoting a source that frequently uses the ellipsis for other purposes (such as using an ellipsis to show a long pause or hesitation). Using brackets is a clear way of saying, “This ellipsis is mine, and it is not part of the original quote.”

Here is an example of how a writer might choose to include a full quote:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And here is an example of how the writer can use the bracketed ellipsis to omit material for concision and efficiency:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children [. . .] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

To learn more about the ellipsis and its other applications in writing, click here.

Use brackets to replace errors in the original quote: In addition to replacing words in a quote simply to fit the larger context, you can also use brackets to correct misspellings and other errors. Simply replace the erroneous portion with the corrected version, and frame the replaced part(s) in brackets.

Here is the original quote—a line that a student or essayist might quote from a newspaper article. Notice how the quote contains a spelling error for the homophones there and their:

“Governor Smith told reporters he would gladly answer there questions in time.”

Here is how we can adjust the quote in the larger essay:

The Local Herald reported, “Governor Smith told reporters he would gladly answer [their] questions in time.”

Setting off sic in brackets to point out an error in the original quotation: Inserting [sic] after an error in the quoted material lets the reader know that the original source has a typographical or grammatical error. (Sic, pronounced like sick, is Latin for thus, which essentially means, “Thus it is, as it appeared in the original material.”) With this technique, you can let the reader know that the mistake isn’t yours, while remaining true to the original quote.

So, why use sic when we can simply replace the error with the corrected usage? The answer involves the writer’s purpose: there are times that a writer may want to leave the error visible in the quotation and to use a bracketed sic to point out that the error occurred. For example, writers use the sic technique when writing a critique or rebuttal of an opponent’s argument, since it is a tasteful and defendable way of saying to one’s detractors, “You don’t write with care and precision!” As the writer attacks the arguments of her opponent, she also undercuts her opponent’s credibility by (correctly) pointing out errors. In this sense, brackets serve a special rhetorical function, even as they serve the purposes of clarity and basic mechanics.

Here is an example of using a bracketed sic to indicate an error in the original source:

In Tuesday’s debate, Governor Smith stated, “This is the important question: is [sic] our children learning what they should in school?”

The other approach (discussed earlier) is simply to replace the erroneous word with the correct usage:

In Tuesday’s debate, Governor Smith stated, “This is the important question: [are] our children learning what they should in school?”

Note: Sic is italicized since it is a foreign (Latin) word. Treat other foreign terms this way, unless those terms have been fully integrated as English terms.

Use brackets to place a parenthetical phrase within another parenthetical phrase: If (for some rare [but valid] purpose) you need to place parentheses within parentheses, the way to do that is to use brackets—as seen in this sentence. However, the best advice is to avoid placing brackets within parentheses by rewriting or rearranging the sentence. Many readers, after all, are unaware of this particular bracket technique, so they may become confused by the appearance of brackets within a parenthetical phrase or clause. This is the one bracket application that does not involve quotations.

Here is how the writer might avoid using brackets in the example sentence:

If (for some rare, but valid, purpose) you need to place parentheses within parentheses, the way to do that is to use brackets—as [no longer] seen in this sentence.

(Did you see how—and why—the writer did use brackets in the revised sentence above?)

Next Up: Dashes and Parentheses

As we near the end of “Punctuation Toolbox,” there are two more key punctuation techniques to discuss: dashes and parentheses. And here’s the best part–I saved the best for last! (Now doesn’t that make you want to read on?)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Related Question: Is it “Everyday” or “Every Day”?

Every day and everyday: which one is the correct spelling? Although answering this question does not involve hyphens directly, it is worth mentioning in this discussion of hyphens, since it follows the same rules that hyphenated adjectives follow.

In terms of joining words, there are three forms:

  1. Open: A space is between the two words. They are not joined.
  2. Hyphenated: A hyphen joins the two words. (See the two previous articles for more on the hyphenated form.)
  3. Closed: The two words run seamlessly together as one word with no hyphen or space between.

The rules for the closed style often work the same as the rules for the hyphenated style, and this is true as well for deciding between everyday and every day: when writing the word everyday as a single adjective, write it together, with no space or hyphen. (In the list above, that is category 3—closed.)

Here is an example:

I hope to help everyday people improve their writing.

In the example above, everyday is a single adjective for the noun, people. Here it is, labeled, with the compound adjective underlined and the noun it modifies in italics:

I hope to help everyday people improve their writing.

However, if every is an adjective for the noun day, then do not write them together. They are separate parts of speech, so write them separately:

Bob worked every day this month. (Every is an adjective for day.)

The decision to hyphenate works the same way. Consider the terms low-income and low income:

Although he worked very hard, Bob earned a relatively low income. (Low is an adjective for the noun, income.)

Vs.

Low-income Americans like Bob should receive decent benefits. (Low-income is a single adjective for the noun, Americans.)

A Working Method for Deciding on Hyphenation

Of course, there are many more terms than everyday and low-income. How do we know if such terms should be open, hyphenated, or closed?

Well, as a general rule, the open form is easy: if the two words don’t combine into a single adjective for some other word, then we would use the open form. But, then again, there are always those odd compound nouns like dishwasher, football, and doorbell. A dictionary is always helpful for words like these, and most good word-processing programs come equipped with a dictionary.

As for deciding between the hyphenated and closed form for multiple-word adjectives . . . well, that’s a trickier matter. Still, here’s a tried-and-true approach that I use:

  1. Use a high-quality word-processing program like Microsoft Word or WordPerfect.
  2. Using the word-processing program, type the term in the closed form (no spaces or hyphens—just one seamless word).
  3. If spell check does not detect a spelling error in the closed form, then—chances are—you should use the closed form. From there, you can use the “Look up” option to look up the term in the word-processing program’s dictionary, just to be safe.
  4. If spell check detects an issue (in most programs, with a red underline), then right-click the word to see options the program offers as correct spellings. Chances are, one of those correct spellings is the hyphenated term. And even if the hyphenated term isn’t recognized by spell check, it is perfectly allowable for a writer to hyphenate two words into one if it serves clarity. (For example, see John Updike’s seventeen-word hyphenation, quoted near the end of the first hyphen article.)
  5. Finally, remember that no one will crucify you for hyphenating two words, so long as you do so to improve clarity. Remember the most important rule of writing: make things easy and clear for your readers.

Next Up: Quotation Marks

Well, that’s it for hyphens. It’s time to move on to quotation marks. Click the link below to learn more:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces Christopher Altmanand hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Hyphen Odds and Ends

In the previous article, we looked at the hyphen rule of thumb:

Use hyphens to show that a multiple-word adjective functions as a single unit.

That rule covers ninety percent of hyphen uses. The other ten percent seems confusing, because it involves a wide variety of rules and no-no’s. I do not want to bog you down in rules, dear reader. With that avoidance in mind, I will not list all of the rules and odd uses of hyphens here. However, I should touch on a few of the most frequent points of confusion.

If you are interested in learning more about the nitpicky rules of hyphens, I recommend C. Edward Good’s handbook, A Grammar Book for You and I–Oops, me!: All the Grammar You Need to Succeed in Life. Although there are many good books that explain the general use of hyphens, no book I have encountered goes into the detail that Good’s book covers. Check it out.

In the meantime, here are a few further points on hyphen use. . . .

Don’t Confuse the Hyphen with Its Longer Cousin–the Dash.

The dash (which I used in this section’s title, just above) is twice as long as the hyphen. In fact, in most word-processing programs, the dash is formed by typing two hyphens in a row. Today, word-processing applications have nifty auto-format features that recognize two adjacent hyphens and run them together to form an uninterrupted dash, like the one seen in this section’s title. But this was not always the way dashes looked. In the ancient days of the typewriter, before the development of word-processing programs like MS Word (when early humans hunted the wooly mammoth), people simply typed two hyphens to represent the dash. The two hyphens would have a small space between them and would not appear as the single long line we are accustomed to seeing in twenty-first-century documents. (To my students’ amusement, this double-hyphen dash is what I call an old-school dash.)

The point of this spiel on hyphens and dashes? Simple: Many people see hyphens and call them dashes. The first step to understanding the difference between these two distinct forms of punctuation is to identify them correctly. The difference, after all, is clear:

– (hyphen)

— (dash)

While we are on the topic, what are dashes? Think of a dash as replacing a comma or colon to show a spontaneous change or interruption in a sentence. Its functions are completely different from those of the hyphen. Their only similarity is that they are both horizontal lines that occur between words.

Here are three previous Writer’s Toolbox articles that discuss dashes:

Use Your Own Judgment: Hyphenate to Avoid Confusion.

Although there may be no rule for hyphenating a given term, writers sometimes hyphenate to avoid ambiguity. In fact, for purposes of achieving clarity, writers sometimes choose to hyphenate even if it goes against the core rules of hyphenating. Here is an example (taken from Good’s book) of such a situation:

The article was thought provoking.

Is the writer saying . . .

People thought that the article was provoking (which means they probably didn’t like it)?

. . . or is the writer saying this? . . .

The article provoked thought in people (which means it was received well)?

Well, the original sentence (with no hyphens) states that people found the article provoking—that is, the article tended to anger readers. To express the second message—the idea that the article provoked thought—the writer would need to use a hyphen to connect thought and provoking:

The article was thought-provoking.

See how that works? Now the message is clear because thought-provoking acts as a single adjective to describe the article. Although we would not normally hyphenate a noun and an –ing word to create an adjective, we would need to do so in the sentence above. This example breaks the hyphenation rules to follow a higher rule: always make the message clear for your reader.

Another -ing term that I like to hyphenate is word-processing, when I use it as an adjective for another noun. Notice that in the first sentence, word is the adjective describing the (gerund) noun processing:

Ed admitted that he is not very good at word processing.

However, in this second sentence, I am using word-processing as a single adjective for programs:

Still, Ed is trying to improve his proficiency with word-processing programs like Microsoft Word.

Do Not Use Hyphens between –ly Adverbs and Adjectives.

In addition to modifying verbs, adverbs can modify adjectives. This is different from a multiple-word adjective. If you are confused as to what an –ly adverb is, it is a word that combines an adjective and an –ly suffix. This forms an adverb, which most often modifies verbs. In the same way that the adjective tells us what kind of noun it is, an adverb tells us how the verb is done. Remember, though, that adverbs can also modify adjectives. Whether the –ly adverb modifies a verb or an adjective, remember that it should not be hyphenated with the verb or adjective that follows it. Confusing? Here are some examples:

I hope to write a widely acclaimed book. (Not: widely-acclaimed book)

The barely new car broke down in a busy intersection. (Not: barely-new)

And, if all this talk of adjectives and adverbs has you confused, just remember:

If a word describing how some action is done ends in –ly, do not hyphenate it with the word that follows.

Got it? (Of course you do!)

Use Hyphens in Words That Would Otherwise Be Confused for Other Words.

Here are some examples of words that may need hyphens to clear up ambiguity:

re-create (to remake or simulate)

vs.

recreate (to have fun)

Or, how about this one:

un-ionize (a chemistry term, the opposite of ionize)

vs.

unionize (to form a union)

Use Hyphens to Form Some Compound Nouns.

In the previous hyphen article, we looked at compound adjectives: adjectives formed from multiple words. Hyphens also join some compound nouns: nouns that are formed by more than one word. Some is the key word.

Here are some examples of hyphenated nouns, some of which I have drawn from C. Edward Good’s chapter on hyphens:

Mother-in-law

President-elect

Great-grandfather

One-half

Self-control (Words beginning with self– are hyphened. See section below.)

Notice that these hyphenated nouns follow the same general rule as multiple-word hyphenated adjectives: the hyphens show that the joined words form a single unit (whether a noun or an adjective), and that the resulting hyphenated term is to be treated as one word.

Hyphen Finer Points

Here are some even finer points on hyphen use:

1. Use hyphens to express a range of numbers, essentially replacing the word through.

For tomorrow’s class, I have asked my students to read pages 12-35.

(Note: In a good word-processing program, this hyphen is actually a shorter version of the  dash called “an en dash.” This en dash is shorter than the normal em dash, but longer than a hyphen. The best way to form an en dash in most word-processing programs is by typing the two hyphens between the numbers, but with spaces before and after the double-hyphen. However, in many programs, the en dash is not an option, so a hyphen will have to do.)

2. Hyphens and fractions:

Hyphenate fractions that are spelled out and used as adjectives, but do not hyphenate the whole number (if there is one). The whole number should be isolated from the fraction part:

I ran two and one-half miles yesterday. I am not feeling well today.

(If this rule seems confusing, just remember that it reflects the numerical form: by being written to the left of the fraction, the whole number is separated from the fraction: 2½. The lack of hyphenation reflects the numerical separation.)

3. Hyphenate terms involving self + some other word.

Natalie is an intelligent but self-conscious student. I wish she would answer more questions.

However . . .

If any prefix is added before self, the word is simply written all together. We call this a closed compound word (as opposed to a hyphenated compound word). Look at the following examples:

selfish behavior (added –ish suffix to self, so closed instead of hyphenated)

unselfish behavior (added un- prefix and –ish suffix to self, so closed instead of hyphenated)

Or, to look at our previous hyphenated example:

self-conscious student (hyphenated)

vs.

unselfconscious student (prefix –un, so closed)

The Final Hyphen Rule: When It Comes to Hyphens, Dictionaries Are Our Friends.

There are many more odds-and-ends rules for hyphens. However, I write to express the core function of the hyphen: to join words for purposes of avoiding ambiguity. If you understand that rule, you’re golden.

Still, there are often no hard-and-fast rules for why one term might be hyphenated while another is not. Knowing whether to hyphenate such terms is ultimately a matter of consensus–a matter of people agreeing to a certain convention or practice. So, how do we know what the grammar gods have to say about hyphenating a given term?

Here is a nice trick for any hyphen situations I have not addressed here: if you are unsure whether a term should be hyphenated, consult a dictionary. Terms that are not hyphenated will have a dot between the syllables, while words that are hyphenated will have a hyphen in place of the dot. Look carefully, and you’ll see the difference.

So, dear reader, go out and hyphenate freely! And as you fill the world with hyphens, remember: it’s all about making things clear for your reader.

Next Up:

Related Question: Is It “Everyday” or “Every Day?”

In these hyphen articles, we have looked at how the hyphen joins two separate words into a single part of speech. In most cases, the hyphen functions to create multiple-word adjectives. However, there is one other way to join words: just join the terms completely into one seamless word. This practice accounts for the difference between terms like every day and everyday. Often my students (incorrectly) use these two terms interchangeably, but occasionally some students think to ask, “Which one is correct?–Should it be every day or everyday?” The answer: it depends! And what it depends on is precisely the same concept behind hyphenated multiple-word adjectives.

If this everyday usage bothers you seemingly every day, then you should check out the next article before we move on to other punctuation techniques. Here’s the link to that article:

Works Cited

Good, C. Edward. A Grammar Book for You and I–Oops, Me!: All the Grammar You Need to Succeed in Life. Herndon: Capitol Books, 2002. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces Christopher Altmanand hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).