Burt’s Writing Rules (e-mails and memos)

Burt’s Rules

These “rules” are not researched or “official” in any sense, but I had very good high school English teachers, the best. In my office, here is what I want, simple and direct. Editor’s note. For the most part, I have omitted quotation marks below, and sorry that I have not yet mastered the new WordPress editor “Gutenberg 101”.

We must speak in direct voice.

She was informed that people were saying bad things about her. No.

Betty told Sally that Zack said she is a bitch. Better

We speak in the proper number and tense.

          I done. No. I did. Yes

          They seen. No. They saw. Yes

Prepositions are words such as of, to, by, before, without. A prepositional phrase requires a comma.

As time goes by, Duffy gets bored.

Before we can go to lunch, we need to have a meeting.

A compound sentence must have a comma:

Billy runs around the yard, and Sally swims in the pool.

Billy runs around the yard, and he swims in the pool.

Billy runs around the yard, and Billy swims in the pool.

Without two subjects and two verbs, it is not a compound sentence.

Billy runs around the yard and swims in the pool.

Sally runs around the corner and hits Billy in the head.

A semi-colon, at least as I use it, is a super comma or an almost period. (Note the parenthetical phrase in this sentence: they require a comma on each side, like baby parentheses.

Billy swims in the pool; Sally, in the pond.

Billy runs in yard; Sally swims in the pool. (This is cheating, but sometimes I do it.) Better to use a period.

How many sentences in a paragraph. Google says between three and eight.

But “Burt’s rule” in e-mail and memos is no more than two sentences, and no more than 3-4 lines, per paragraph.

Number those paragraphs; and try to hold it to one or two lines each.

We do not do indefinite antecedents:

He is a very fine fellow. (Who is “he”?)

“Mayor Pete” is a very fine fellow. That is a surprise, as he went to Harvard.

We have no “Oxford commas” in our office. They are simply commas. But they must go “all the way”.

He wore green, black, grey, purple, and red; and looked terrible! (the semi-colon there was because of a pause to try to picture this odd fellow. But, notice the indefinite antecedent. Be sure we can identify who wore those colors.

Jimmy ran, jumped, tumbled, rolled, skipped and ran. No!

Jimmy ran, jumped, tumbled, rolled, skipped, and ran! Correct.

In Capt. Judy’s class, a “comma splice” meant twenty points off in a theme grade.

Joe climbed the tree, Bill jumped the fence. It must be: Joe climbed the tree, and Bill jumped the fence.

Sally sleeps all the time, she must have sleep apnea. No! Sally sleeps all the time. She must have sleep apnea.

Closely related to a “comma splice” is a “run on sentence”; being two sentences that are connected without even the comma. e.g., She plays with trains he plays with guns.

We don’t splint infinitives. Fred asked her to quickly run to the store.

Quickly, Fred asked her to run to the store. No.

Fred asked her to run to the store quickly. Correct.

If Billie has two brothers, his named brother will be an adjective; and if he has one brother, the named brother will be a noun. What?

Billie’s brother Ben hit a home run. No comma, and “brother” is an adjective describing Ben.

Billie’s brother, Ben, came home early from work. Here “brother” is a noun, so Ben must be set out with parenthetical commas, as it is setting out the name of Ben’s only brother.

In “a.” above, since there are two brothers, “Ben” is used only to identify which brother. Get it? If not, 5 push-ups!

Word use;

I appreciate him running to the store for me; No!

I appreciate his running to the store for me, or I appreciated him for running to the store for me. (I know; indefinite antecedent. Fred of course!)

I try to eat only healthy food. No! I want to be healthy, so I try only to eat only healthful food. (Not “to only eat.)

A parenthetical phrase must have an opening and closing comma.

Joe, being inexperienced kept snagging his lure in the tree limbs. No!

Joe, being inexperienced, kept snagging his lure in the tree limbs. Yes!

You do not get money in a tax return You get money in your tax refund.

You do not put your will in a safely deposit box. It is a safe deposit box.

Finally, it is not normalcy. Burt is a traditionalist. He prefers normality.

You may not like these rules, but they are the ones that Burt prefers. jbh

This post was written by Burton Hunter


  • O'David grammar flouter says:

    Many kudos, and high marks for having rigorous standards. That said, too inflexible and some unnecessary. (I just wrote a fragment with no subject or verb, and, sadly, I don’t care.)

    • Agree, but as I fight a lack of attention to detail, I enjoy the challenge of getting it right. And, I like knowing that I know the underlying logic of going something the right way. The new era standard is let them say what they want how they want to, you can’t expect “them” to meet the standards of an educated person. I say that is copping out.

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