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Grammar And Style Guide - D

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Daily Basis.
See On a —— Basis.
Dangling Participle.
A present participle is a verb ending in -ing, and is called dangling when the subject of the -ing verb and the subject of the sentence do not agree. An example is "Rushing to finish the paper, Bob's printer broke." Here the subject is Bob's printer, but the printer isn't doing the rushing. Better would be "While Bob was rushing to finish the paper, his printer broke." (Pay close attention to sentences beginning with When ——ing.)

One way to tell whether the participle is dangling is to put the phrase with the participle right after the subject of the sentence: "Bob's printer, rushing to finish the paper, broke" doesn't sound right.

Not all words in -ing are participles: in the sentence "Answering the questions in chapter four is your next assignment," the word answering functions as a noun, not a verb. (These nouns in -ing are called gerunds.) [Revised 3 August 2001.]

A dash (publishers call it an "em-dash" because it's the width of the letter m) is used to mark a parenthesis — like this — or an interruption. Don't confuse it with a Hyphen, although you can use two hyphens -- like this -- for dashes in your papers. (Most word processors have a special symbol for the dash, which you can use if you like; note, though, that it's not always possible in every program, and they don't always come through in E-mail.) Whether dashes should have — spaces — around — them or not—like—this is a question of house style.)

There's nothing wrong with a few dashes here and there, but too many of them will make your writing less formal. Using them where other punctuation marks are proper is okay in informal correspondence, but out of place in most other kinds of writing. [Entry revised 11 June 2001]

Though it's nearly a lost cause, purists prefer to keep this a plural noun: "The data are," not "the data is." The (now nearly obsolete) singular is datum. See also Media and Agreement.
There's no one way to spell out dates; it's a matter of house style. In American usage, "September 14, 2004" (usually with a comma) is most common when you're spelling things out, and "9/14/04" (or "09/14/04") when you're abbreviating. In much of the rest of the world, "14 September 2004" (usually without a comma) and "14/9/04" (or "14/09/04") is more common. Other possibilities abound, including some that put the year first. Whatever you do, be consistent; and if your audience might be international, avoid using just the digits: "04/03/02" could be 3 April 2002, 4 March 2002, 2 March 2004, and so on. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]
Definite Articles.
See Articles.
Denotation versus Connotation.
A denotation is a word's literal meaning; a connotation is the suggestions and associations that go with it. Dictionaries usually give a word's denotations, but are often less useful in revealing connotations; a good writer, though, will be very conscious of the hidden meanings carried by every word. Think, for instance, about the phrases make love, have intercourse, make whoopie, copulate, mate, and screw — they all have the same literal meaning, but they're not at all interchangeable. See Diction, Dictionaries, and Audience.
Dependent versus Independent Clauses.
A clause is just a group of words with a subject and a verb, a part of a sentence. Some groups of words can get by on their own without any help: these are called independent. Others can't stand alone; either they don't have their own subject and verb, or they're subordinated to another part of the sentence: these are dependent. (A hint: dependent clauses often begin with words like if, whether, since, and so on; see Conjunctions.) Knowing the difference can help you figure out when to use commas.

For example: in the sentence "Since we've fallen a week behind, we'll skip the second paper," the first part — "Since we've fallen a week behind" — is dependent, because it can't be a sentence on its own. The second part — "We'll skip the second paper" — does just fine on its own; it's an independent clause. The independent clause can be a sentence without any help from the Since clause.

Diction means simply "word choice." English teachers probably mention it most often when there's a problem with the level of diction. The English language sports many near synonyms, groups of which may share more or less the same denotation, but which differ in connotation. And sometimes these connotations can be arranged hierarchically, from high to low. Think of warrior (high diction), soldier (middle), and dogface or grunt (low); or apparel (high), clothes (middle), and duds (low). Higher diction often involves Latinate words, and lower diction Germanic, but not always.

And it's not just a matter of high, middle, and low diction; there are many possible registers — scientific, flowery, bureaucratic, vulgar. The important thing is to be consistent: if you jump at random between levels of diction, you're likely to confuse your audience. And that's a bad thing.

No writer can survive without a good dictionary. I'm fond of the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.; it not only provides clear definitions, but refers controversial usage questions to a panel of experts who vote on whether they're acceptable. (It's also available for free on-line.) For more serious historical work, there's nothing like the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED, as it's universally known) — this twenty-volume juggernaut not only provides remarkably comprehensive definitions, but it shows how words have been used throughout their history. Anyone who writes for a living — or even a hobby — should get to know the OED.

But although dictionaries are indispensable, you have to know how to use them. Be careful not to accord to them more authority than they claim for themselves: they're works of reference put together by people, not stone tablets engraved by God. The old argument that something is "not a word" because it doesn't appear in "the" dictionary (as if there were only one dictionary), for instance, is downright silly. Any pronounceable combination of letters to which someone assigns a meaning can be called a word; the question is whether it's a good word — by which, of course, I mean an appropriate word. Many dictionaries list words like ain't or irregardless; that doesn't mean you can use them with impunity in formal writing. Pay close attention to the usage notes — "Nonstandard," "Slang," "Vulgar" — and be sure you choose the right word.

Dictionaries are also more concerned with denotations than connotations, and you're a fool if you think a dictionary entry amounts to a Get-out-of-Jail-Free card in any writing problem. Some dictionary may define gook as an Asian or queen as a gay man, but you can point to the dictionary all you like ("It's sense 3b!") without convincing anyone it's appropriate or inoffensive. Be sensitive to the associations your words carry to your audience.

Avoid, by the way, referring to "Webster's," which has no specific meaning — any dictionary can use the name. Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, is a specific company that produces well-regarded dictionaries. Besides, dictionary definitions at the beginnings of papers rarely add anything to the discussion. A favorite line from The Simpsons, where Homer wins the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence: "Webster's Dictionary defines 'excellence' as 'The quality or condition of being excellent.'"

The word different is often redundant, as in several different options or many different participants. Since you can't have several of the same option or many of the same participant, several options and many participants will do nicely.

Note that the phrase "different than" gets under many people's skin. In most cases, "different from" is a little more proper. So "Grunge is different from heavy metal" (but "Things are different than they were"). Brits sometimes use "different to," but that sounds odd to American ears. [Entry revised 1 June 2004.]

Direct and Indirect Objects.
A direct object is the thing (or person) acted on by a transitive verb. The indirect object is used most often for the recipient in verbs of giving. Examples are clearer than definitions.

"I took the paper" — the paper is the direct object, because the verb took acts on the paper; the paper is the thing that was taken. "I called her this morning" — her is the direct object, because the verb called acts on her; her is the person who was called.

"I gave him my suggestions" is a bit trickier. Here him is an indirect object, because him isn't the thing that was given; I gave suggestions, and I gave them to him. Suggestions is the direct object, him the indirect object.

See Transitive versus Intransitive Verbs.