Things You Should Know About Grammar and Style

by Craig Rigg
Category Specialist, Grammar & Style

"Grammar and Style" can be a very frustrating category for editors and judges alike. While concerned with the basic elements of written communication, the category is, in reality, mislabeled. "Grammar" is the study of the formal rules of how words are arranged into sentences and calls up memories of monotonous English class assignments. "Style" is the choice a writer makes in words and phrases and is often applied to distinctive and innovative writing techniques. Neither term accurately describes what most barbershop editors do when preparing a bulletin.

More appropriately, the category could be labeled "Usage and Mechanics," for this phrase implies the commonly accepted practices in language used in day-to-day interaction. "Usage" suggests a conversational use of language in ways that are comfortable to the reader. "Mechanics" is a more rigid term, for it recognizes that certain aspects-spelling and basic punctuation, for example-are mandatory for clear and effective communication.

In all my years of judging chapter bulletins, I have always advised editors to follow one basic piece of advice: Model one's usage (mechanics and stylistic devices) on that used in The Harmonizer. All we ask for is clear and concise communication so that readers don't have to work at comprehending a writer's meaning, either through overwrought language or from mechanically error-laden sentences.

To assist editors in avoiding these pitfalls, PROBE has made available the Style Manual, both in paper and electronic form. Each editor should have a copy at his side. With this in mind, let's examine the three main areas of the "Grammar and Style" category in terms of common pitfalls. My experience as a judge is that the overwhelming majority of "errors" I encounter in a chapter bulletin are of the following types.

Punctuation

Whether we like it or not, all of those funny little marks we make other than the 26 letters of the alphabet are pretty important. Without them, we would have to work harder to figure out what a writer is trying to say. For example, consider the following sentence:

          However you can find a way.

Placing a comma in either of two positions completely changes the idea communicated by the arrangement of these six words.

          However, you can find a way.
          However you can, find a way.

Periods, commas, apostrophes, semicolons-they all have specific functions. Here are a few punctuation problems that frequently occur in bulletins:

Comma usage

Major problem areas are as follows:

Omitting a comma after an introductory word, phrase, or clause.

          Correct     Yes, I can sing tenor.
          Correct     Shifting my weight, I energized the motion.
          Correct     If you sing on top of the note, you'll rarely go flat.

Omitting a comma in a compound sentence.

          Correct     We invited several guests from the local college, but none of them showed up.
          Correct     The recent guest night was a success, and we have three people to thank for it.
          Correct     We were asked to bring our music for the Christmas concert and share it with guests. (No comma needed because the sentence isn't compound.)

Omitting a comma in a restrictive clause.

          Correct     I like singing songs that are in the key of G. (No comma needed because the clause "that are in the key of G" is essential.)
          Correct     I like singing Lou Perry songs, which are perfect balances of melody and lyrics. (A comma is needed because the clause "which are perfect balances of melody and lyrics" is not essential. In fact, an old grammar rule says to use the word "which" with a comma for any non-essential adjective clause. Use the relative pronoun "that" without a comma, for essential adjective clauses.)

Omitting a comma in words of direct address.

          Correct     Gentlemen, we have to be more consistent singers.
          Correct     Thanks, guys, for the birthday gift.

Apostrophe usage

Incorrect use with singular and plural possessions.

          Correct     Our section leader's wife helped coach us on the choreography. (Singular)
          Correct     Our section leaders' work ethic rubs off on all the rest of the chorus. (Plural)

The apostrophe rule for possession is as follows:

          -- apostrophe s for singular possession
          -- only the apostrophe for plural forms ending in "s"
          -- apostrophe s for plural forms not ending in "s"

Quotation marks

Periods, commas, semicolons/colons, question marks are handled differently when used with quotation marks. Basically, commas and periods go inside quotation marks; semicolons and colons go outside; question marks and exclamation marks go either in or out depending on context.

          Correct     We sang "Midnight Rose."
          Correct     The new song was a "tear-jerker," yet we managed to sing it as a comedy number.
          Correct     Are we going to sing "Midnight Rose"?
          Correct     Are we going to sing "How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away?"

Ellipses

Use ellipses ( ... ) only in situations in which you omit material from a direct quote. Too often, editors use ellipses for a stylistic effect. Prefer a dash instead.

          Incorrect     We had a great time at convention ... despite the weather.
          Incorrect     John had ... uh ... a problem ... hitting the high notes.
          Correct     I think that you ought to- Oh, forget it!

Grammar Problems

Grammar refers to a system of arranging words to form sentences. Since all of us learn the grammar of our native language intuitively, one could say that we are all natural grammarians. Somewhere in our growing up we learned that "Me want a cookie," though clearly communicating an idea, just isn't right. It matters which pronoun is used: an objective case first person pronoun versus the possessive case first person. It's all grammar, but while we might not know the technical terms, we have a good idea of what sounds correct.

Run-together sentences
          Incorrect     We sang the song a little flat next time we'll get it right.
          Incorrect     We sang the song a little flat, next time we'll get it right.
          Correct     We sang the song a little flat. Next time, we'll get it right.
          Correct     We sang the song a little flat; next time, we'll get it right.

Misspelled/mistyped/omitted words

This is the nemesis of all writers and editors. Word processing spell-checkers do a pretty good job of finding misspelled words; however, these applications can't distinguish correctly spelled words used in incorrect context.

          Correctly spelled     The fist think wee mist dew as singe won pinch.
          Omitted word     Proofread your work carefully so that you don't any words out.

The editor's only solution for spelling/mistyping/omission is to take time for a careful proofreading, or better yet, have someone else do your proofreading.

Writing of Numbers and Dates

Technically this isn't a "grammar" problem, but there is a right and wrong way to present numbers and dates.

Numbers

Spell out all numbers from one to nine, and spell out all ordinal numbers from first to ninth. Use Arabic numbers and descriptors for 10 and for 10th and beyond. The only exception is to spell out a number when it begins a sentence, or recast the sentence so that it doesn't begin with the number. Note the following correct use of numbers in sentences:

          We sang our two songs and finished 12th with 27 men on stage, 15 for their first time.
          Twenty-seven men appeared on stage, 15 of them for their first time.
          We placed 27 men on stage, 15 of them for their first time.

Dates

This is as much a punctuation problem as a grammar/style issue. Problems usually are one of the following:

          Not enclosing the year in commas when writing a date.

                     Correct     We plan to start our coaching session March 15, 2003, but that depends on who we can get.
                     Correct     We plan to start our coaching session March 15, 2003.

          Using an ordinal number for a date

                     Incorrect     Our first coaching session is March 15th.
                    Correct     Our first coaching session is March 15.
                    Correct     The 15th of March came sooner than expected.

Using apostrophes to shorten a year.

Sometimes this is done to commemorate a memorable year, but all too often it is done supposedly to shorten the writing of a year. However, all that gets saved is one character.

                    Incorrect     The '60s was a turbulent time in American history.
                     Correct     The 1960s was a turbulent time in American history.

Note that an apostrophe is NOT included with the plural "s" in writing dates.

                    Incorrect     After the flood of '93, I take levee maintenance seriously.
                    Correct     The Spirit of '76 can still be felt in Philadelphia.

Style Problems

In all honesty, some judges can be too restrictive about style. An editor should be allowed latitude of choice in composition and in editing others' work. Judges should not try to impose a style on editors. However, anything that gets in the way of clarity detracts from communication.

For example:

Capitalization

In our organization, few nouns need to be capitalized. The exceptions are as follows:

  1. Capitalize the word "Society" in every context that refers to our organization.
  2. Capitalize the short-hand phrase "Barbershop Harmony Society" whenever it is used in place of the acronym SPEBSQSA, Inc.
  3. The Society's legal department has indicated that the words "Barbershop" and "Barbershopper" ought to be capitalized since each refers to a distinctive element of our organization. However, by formal grammar rules, it is not essential that these words be capitalized. The editor has the discretion, but he or she should remain consistent in usage through a publication.
  4. Capitalize the word "chapter" only when it is used in conjunction with the name of a specific chapter. For example, "the Macomb Chapter" but not "the Houston and Waco chapters" since there is no single entity by that name.
  5. Capitalize office positions only when used as part of the name of the individual; for example, President Woody Cartwright, Music VP Harry Anderson, Director Mike Matheny. You may also capitalize the title when it follows the name in a list of titles. For example: "The following officers represented us at Bainfield: Alan Hatfield, President; Mark Olesen, Membership; Pete Townsend, Treasurer; Pete Wolford, Historian. Do not capitalize office titles when they are used as common nouns; for example, "The secretary will advise the director of the need to appoint a music chairman and a show chairman."

While there are many capitalization rules, most of them covered in the Style Manual, most of the time editors capitalize too much.

Wordy sentences

           "Be careful with composing sentences that are too long, either because the sentence is fraught with lots of convoluted clauses, twisting and turning words to the point that the reader loses track of the original intent of the sentence, or because the sentence uses too many coordinating conjunctions to create compound sentences, and the sentences get stringy, or they begin to sound as if a third-grader had written them, or because of unnecessary use of extra words that are redundant and express the same idea over and over again."

Whew! That last sentence was a loser! I trust you realize that I was purposely breaking every rule I could think of about wordiness. Here's a better way to communicate the same idea:

           Wordy sentences can be created one of three ways: (1) by using too many subordinate clauses; (2) by using too many compound clauses; or (3) by using repetitive phrasing.

Use of symbols

Avoid using the ampersand (&), the percent sign (%), the pound sign (#), or more than one exclamation point (!!!!!!). If you examine any newspaper or magazine, you'll rarely find these marks used except in the circumstances described in the PROBE Style Manual.

Ineffective paragraphing

Formal rules of composition suggest that a good paragraph always have a topic sentence, ample sentences of support, and some type of concluding or reinforcing remark. However, in print journalism, such paragraphs often get quite lengthy. Since most of our bulletins are printed in two, three or four-column formats, long paragraphs produce long strips of tightly-packed words. Better that a "normal" paragraph be broken into two or three subsections rather than create long blocks of copy that become tiring to read.

As a rule, a newsprint paragraph should not be any longer than the column is wide. That means, if you have a 2-inch column, the paragraph should not be much longer than 2- inches. The reason is purely visual in order to enhance "white space" (a Layout & Reproduction term). Check any form of newsprint, and you'll see that most paragraphing is quite short.

Finding good people to edit bulletins is a daunting task. Those who volunteer often are effective communicators, though not necessarily formally trained. Their job of communication is vitally important to the vitality of a chapter, so we want to encourage them in their efforts, not discourage them with trivial and obscure grammar rules. Rather, we want to encourage natural, conversational, concise communication. As mentioned at the outset, nothing serves as a better example of this type of writing and editing than our own Harmonizer. Follow its example, and you'll produce effective copy.

HR

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