Writing Tips for Unions and Employees
The lawyers at Sandulli Grace, P.C. often have occasion to work with our clients on various writing projects. Employees are often asked to write reports, statements and memoranda or fill out forms regarding incidents that may affect their employment conditions or lead to disciplinary action. In reviewing these documents, we have noticed that our clients, like most people, will occasionally make mistakes of grammar, spelling and usage that reduce the effectiveness of their writing. While we cannot guarantee that a well-written report will ensure that you will achieve your desired goal, we are certain that a document riddled with spelling or syntax errors will distract the reader from what you are trying to say and focus his or her attention on the way you are saying it.
In the hopes of improving our clients’ writing skills (and reminding ourselves – because lawyers make these mistakes too), we have developed a brief list of common writing errors for you to refer to when writing something that your employer may read.
To, Two and Too
Let’s start with an easy one, but one I see all the time. “Too” means also or excessively. “Two” means the number after one and before three. Any other meaning, spell it “to.” “He was driving too fast.” “Can I go too?” “This is too much food for one person.” “I saw two men in a two-door Chevy Malibu at two o’clock.” “Take me out to the ballgame.” “Give that to the Principal.” “Is this the way to the fair?” “I don’t know what to say.” “I have too many reports to write.” “To tell the truth, even two is too many.”
It’s and Its
If I had to pick the most common confusion between words, among all English-language writers, it has to be “it’s” and “its.” Yet the solution, once you memorize it, couldn’t be simpler. “It’s” is a contraction for “it is”, so if you can substitute “it is” without changing the meaning of the sentence, then ‘it’s’ is correct; if not, then ‘its’ is correct. Also remember that ‘its’ is a possessive adjective, which means it always modifies a noun. Examples: “The monster was so huge that it’s body blotted out the sun.” WRONG! Substituting “it is” gives us, “The monster was so huge that it is body blotted out the sun”, which makes no sense. “The monster was so huge that its body blotted out the sun” is correct. Other correct examples: “The monster is so huge that it’s impossible for me to see the sun”, “It’s too late baby, now it’s too late”, “The School Committee hasn’t released its budget yet” and “It’s obvious that your situation has its problems.”
Their, There and They’re
1. “Their” is a possessive adjective meaning ‘belonging to them” that always modifies a noun and refers to more than one person. “Their stereo is turned up too loud.” “Are you going to their party, too? “Has their daughter come home yet?”
2a. “There” is sometimes an adverb referring to a place: “I was there in February.” “Did you see the gun there under the car?” “The resource room is over there next to the auditorium.”
2b. “There” is sometimes used with the verb “to be” to indicate that something exists. “There is a mosquito on your nose.” “I heard there was a fight at the bar last night.” Here are both uses: “There is no way I’m going in there.”
2c. “There” is also used to say things like “Hi there!”, “There, there, don’t worry”, and “There – I told you I wasn’t lying!”
3. “They’re” is a contraction that is short for “they are.” “They’re coming – everybody hide!” “I’m trying to figure out what they’re doing in there.”
Affect and Effect
This one confuses even the best writers. The best way to understand them is to treat each word’s noun and verb forms separately.
- Affect (verb): To change or have an impact on something. “That song always affects my mood.” “Spicy foods affect my digestion – and not in a good way.” “Trauma in his childhood has affected his ability to communicate.” “The bad economy really affected the value of my house.” (Secondary meaning: to pretend or put on airs: “Madonna sounds so affected when she uses a British accent.”)
2. Affect (noun): This rarely-used word comes from psychology and refers to one’s emotional or behavioral state. “The child presented a flat affect – no expression of emotion at all.”
- Effect (verb): To bring about, often with ‘change’. “In his speech, the Governor claimed the new program will effect real change in our state.”
4. Effect (noun): A result or consequence. “The discipline had the effect of ruining morale in the workplace.” “The effects of the storm were visible everywhere we went.” “In effect, he told us to go jump in a lake.” “The law of cause and effect doesn’t always apply in this department.”
NOTE: A sentence using the verb “affect” can usually be converted to a sentence using the phrase “have an effect on” and vice versa. Ex. “That thing really affected me” = “That thing really had an effect on me.”
Conscious and Conscience
1. ‘Conscious’ means you’re not in a coma.
- ‘Conscience’ is your sense of right and wrong.
Accept, Except and Expect
1. Accept (verb): “I accept your apology.”
- Except (preposition): “I understand everything except why you didn’t tell me sooner.”
- Expect (verb): “I don’t expect you to understand.”
Alot, A lot and Allot
1. ‘Alot’ is not a word. Ever. Always write ‘a lot’ instead.
2. ‘Allot’ is a word meaning to give out or distribute. “We allotted five minutes for each candidate to speak.”
Cite, Sight and Site
1. ‘Cite’ means to quote or provide a reference. “The Union president cited Robert’s Rules of Order.” “Did you cite your sources on this paper?” Special meaning: To give a traffic citation: “You can see that I’ve cited you for having a broken taillight.”
- ‘Sight’ means the ability to see; something seen. “You are a sight for sore eyes.” “I went to Italy and saw all the sights.” “The child experienced a temporary loss of sight.”
- ‘Site’ refers to a specific location. “I visited the site of the shooting.” “They need a detail at the construction site.”
Lead and Led
I often see writers using ‘lead’ when they mean ‘led.’
1. ‘Lead’ (noun): “Get the lead out.” “This heavy object must be made of lead.”
- ‘Lead’ (verb, present tense) “She took the lead early in the race.” “If you lead, I will follow.”
- ‘Led’ (verb, past tense) “I think you led us down the garden path.” “What led you to believe I was following you?”
Lose and Loose
- ‘Lose’: To misplace; to fail to win: “With you on our team, how can we lose?” “I tend to lose things if they’re not nailed down.”
- ’Loose’: Not tight (adj.); let go (v): “Loose lips sink ships.” “I let the dogs loose and I haven’t seen them since.” “I have a loose tooth.”
Breath and Breathe
1. ‘Breath’ (noun): “He took his last breath.” “Don’t waste your breath.” “How long can you hold your breath?”
2. ‘Breathe’ (verb): “All I need is the air that I breathe.” “Breathe deep the gathering gloom.”
Council and Counsel
1. ‘Council’: “I am meeting with the City Council next week.”
- ‘Counsel’: “Attorney Jones is the new Town counsel; she will be counseling the town on legal matters.”
Complement and Compliment
1. ‘Complement’: something that fits with something else: “This rug complements the décor nicely – it really pulls the room together.” “The yin and yang symbols truly complement one another.”
- ‘Compliment’: a flattering statement: “Thanks for the compliment!” “Compliments of the chef.”
Active and Passive Voice
Every writing instructor will tell you that you should write in the active voice unless there is a good reason to use the passive voice. What’s the difference? In the active voice, the verb normally identifies an action that the subject is performing; in the passive voice, the verb indicates an action that is being performed by someone or something on the subject.
Active (better): The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. (Subject: Fox; Verb: Jumped Over)
Passive: The lazy dog was jumped over by the quick brown fox. (Subject: Dog: Verb: Was Jumped Over)
Passive: John Q. Public was arrested by Officer Jones and Officer Smith.
Active (better): Officers Smith and Jones arrested John Q. Public.
Passive: Over 10,000 students were educated in the District’s schools over the past decade.
Active (better): The District’s schools educated over 10,000 students over the past decade.
Sometimes you need to reword the sentence, adding and subtracting, in order to make a passive into an active sentence:
Passive: Large numbers of aliens were seen in the vicinity of Grover’s Mills, New Jersey.
Active (better): Residents reported seeing large numbers of aliens in the vicinity of Grover’s Mills, New Jersey (adding the words “Residents reported”).
Sometimes it is appropriate to use the passive voice, such as when your emphasis is on the recipient or product of an action, you want to avoid vague attributions or rewriting it into active voice muddies your meaning. “My car was stolen” (passive) sounds better than “Someone stole my car” (active). “The building was renovated in 1997” (passive) sounds better than “The J&M Construction Company renovated the building in 1997” (active) (unless you are writing for the Construction Company’s website). “Following the ceremony, refreshments will be served in the church basement” (passive). Unfortunately, many bureaucracies and large organizations of all kinds have propagated a mind-numbing writing style for annual reports and other documents that relies heavily on the passive voice. Many of us are so used to reading and hearing such turgid prose that it now sounds normal to us. Please try to resist this impulse in your writing. The active voice is usually the best choice for clear, well-organized prose, no matter what the document.