Sunday, August 10, 2008

Word (processing) nerd

On to electronic word processing hints and tips. My thesis clients know this one. There is never a need to put more than one contiguous space in a Microsoft Word document. Any questions? Leave them in the comments; I will reply.

A couple of other word processing tips. You are the master of your fate on the following:

  • Precisely setting the vertical space after a paragraph. There are other options besides two carriage returns. (Handy when trying to fit a transmittal letter on one page.)

  • You can change the character, size and display of bulleted text. You don't need to accept the blobby round default. I like to use a small square in a one typeface size smaller than the rest of the text. For fun, you can use a character from the symbol set, webdings, wingdings, or even choose a picture.

  • You can also control the alignment of the wrapped lines of text. Don't insert a hard return and tab each line. Use a hanging indent.

  • Set tabs precisely where you want them. Clear the extraneous intervening tabs. If you want text to appear at 4 inches from the margin, set a tab at 4 inches, and clear the others. Don't merely tab-tab-tab until finally arriving exhausted and disheveled in the proximity of the desired point.

  • Likewise, set precise page breaks; do not insert hard returns ad nauseum until the software forces a soft page break. If you end up deleting or inserting something above, your page breaks can shift.

  • If you are aligning text with tabs, such the in the educational preparation in a curriculum vitae (CV), a clean way to keep, say, degree, university, and major neatly together is to create a table, adjust the column widths to your purposes, enter the data, then make the table invisible by hiding grid lines. You might also have to set borders to none (Format->Borders and shading->none.) Adjust the padding, if desired, using Table->Properties->Cell->Options. I almost always use zero.

  • Among others, there are decimal and right align tabs. Decimal tabs align the decimal point in a column of numbers. (Never use a left tab, then attempt to align decimal points with multiple spaces.)
    If you want to right align numbers, such as the page numbers in a table of contents, use right tabs, and, as always, clear extraneous tabs.

  • In technical papers, I keep the figures and their captions together by creating an invisible (see above) 1X2 (1-column, 2-row) table, and place the figure in the top cell, the caption in the bottom cell, setting cell margins to preference (Table->Properties->Cell->Options).

The Grammar Stickler

When it comes to written technical communication, after 25 years' work as a technical editor, I'm a stickler for punctuation, usage, grammar, expression of units of measure, logical organization.

Not so strict am I on spoken communication; in fact, the regionalisms which make other editors cringe I find delightful and amusing. A favorite East Texas quirk is the use of the present, instead of past, tense. (He run a V-8 Ford. They come south from Tennessee in 1930.)

And I never adhere to the stilted-sounding, "He is taller than I [am]." I've even been known to use a preposition to end a sentence with in colloquial spoken English.

Grammar Girl, what do you think of all this?

But, logically, English really needs a second-person plural pronoun to correlate with vous in French, and Ustedes in Spanish. Okay, OED, Texas has solved the problem. I'm talking about y'all. So much more elegant than the Brooklyn you guys, or the misguided youse guys, so much more efficient that you people. What do Midwesterners use? I'd like to know, ubetcha.

Another word to add to the lexicon: ain't. We say I am not. For the contraction, we say I'm not, not I amn't. And inverted for the interrogative, it becomes Aren't I?

Solution: I propose ain't as the contraction for am not. The machine stenography language used by court reporters has a code for ain't. Ain't it logical that written English should follow suit?

A couple of very common errors. In my experience, the most commonly misspelled word is accommodation. Notice that the root is the same as that of commode.

Imply/infer: Infer is not a fancy way of saying imply. The speaker implies; the listener infers.

Compose/comprise: A whole comprises (not is comprised of) its parts. Parts compose the whole.

Fewer/less: If an amount is quantifiable, a smaller amount is denoted as fewer, not less. For instance. "He has enjoyed fewer than 25 lattes in this Starbucks." If the amount is more bulk-y in nature, less is fine: There's less whip on this specialty drink today than last week."

Continual/continuous: Continual has more of a recurring connotation, while continuous means uninterrupted.

Decimate literally means to reduce by one-tenth, not to obliterate, but "its English meaning has been intended to include the destruction of any large proportion of a group." [Webster's II New College Dictionary]

Segueing into spelling out of numbers. In ordinary text, according to the venerable Chicago Manual of Style, numbers one through ninety-nine are spelled out, as well as any number followed by "hundred, thousand, million, etc."

On the other hand, in technical text, depending on the style of the journal, usually numbers 10 and below are spelled out when not denoting units of measure. Units of measure are always spelled out. Beginning a sentence with a number above 10? Recast the sentence to avoid the problem entirely in technical writing.

Engineers and physicists know this one. If a unit of measure is less than one, a zero precedes the decimal point (0.3 kilometers), but not if the unit is never expressed as other than a fraction, such as some statistical terms. The reason for the zero: to take the place of an integer (and maybe to assure readers that the integer was not unintentionally omitted.)

Hyphen, en-dash, em-dash: A hyphen, simply puts, makes one word out of two (high-flying acrobat). An en-dash (alt+numpad 0150)usually expresses an time interval (serving as president from 2000–2005). An em-dash (alt+numpad 0151), which has no spaces before or after, usually serves to set off a parenthetical: His Colonial-era farmhouse—built as a munitions depot—was in need of repair. It can also introduce a bulleted list, serving a similiar function to that of a colon.

Years of experience and months of pregnancy or anything that is a measure of something is expressed as a possessive: eight months' pregnant; 15 years' experience. (Note that these are plural possessives.)

Any editors out there have other observations to share? I would love to compile and include in a future entry.

Next time, some word processing tips.