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I’ve made brief reference at least once on the blog to the importance of precision in writing. And there’s plenty of material to be written about that. The crux of the matter, though, is having a good sense of the words you’re using and how they work together with each other. Does that sound simple? Well, often it’s far from it.

Let’s look at it mathematically for a second. In a 19-word sentence like this one, the writer has to consider the relationships between 171 pairs of words. To be sure, many of those interactions are tenuous or harmless (and much of the time, we assess them quickly and unconsciously), but that’s still 171 chances for a misstep. And as any pharmacist will tell you, all it takes is a single bad interaction between two items, and a patient’s life can be in danger.

Thankfully, the sentences that most of us write tend not to be life-and-death matters. Take a gander at this excerpt from a marketing case study:

The installation featured listening stations with large, high-definition screens that gave each guest one-on-one interaction with the organization’s cause.

Let’s zero in on the term one-on-one for a minute, making sure we have a good sense of its meaning. One-on-one describes a situation where two people at a time — and only two people — are involved. (In fact, the phrase was first used as a sports term.) That definition may seem pretty obvious, but it becomes important when we examine it in context with the larger clause and the full sentence.

At the event described here, we’re talking about a group of people, not just two, which by itself doesn’t disqualify the term. A room full of people can be experiencing one-on-one interaction — say, if they’re speed dating, or ballroom dancing, or playing Battleship. But here, it’s one person at a time interacting with a video screen, not another person. So one-on-one doesn’t quite fit. Another word, like individual, would be a better choice:

The installation featured listening stations with large, high-definition screens that gave each guest individual interaction with the organization’s cause.

For the bonus round, let’s ask a few more questions about the relationships between these words, keeping both precision and concision in mind. For example: Were the guests truly interacting with a cause, or with something less lofty? Can you really give someone interaction, or was some other type of action taking place? Also, is there any missing information that would help describe the event more exactly? Can we eliminate any unnecessary details?

After all of these issues are addressed, here’s one possible revision:

The installation featured listening stations with high-definition screens and headphones, where guests could interact individually with video about the organization’s cause.

Is your head spinning yet? This all may seem like we’re splitting hairs, but good writers and editors learn to skillfully navigate nuances like these, and their readers are all the better for it.

I’ve been a grammar geek for a long time. Diagramming sentences was something I used to do for fun in school. (No, seriously.) In particular, I can remember reveling in the longish Latinate terms I encountered in my junior-high English textbooks: terms like predicate nominative and objective complement and correlative conjunction. Especially correlative conjunction. The word correlative is just fun to say.

We use correlative conjunctions all the time. They’re pairs of words — like both . . . and and either . . . or — which connect parallel items. Prose writers find them useful when they’re building complex sentences. In my mind, they help readers navigate trickier syntactic paths, kind of like those colored symbols that mark hiking trails.

Both . . . and is probably the most common correlative conjunction, but it does come with one stipulation. It can be used only with two items — not three, not four, not more. The correct format is “both A and B.” I know, I know: this sounds obvious and intuitive. But you might be shocked at how often I encounter a statement like this one:

These trends affected both our selection of case studies, our recommendations, and our strategy.

See the problem? The basic construction here is “both A, B, and C.” And that doesn’t work, since both by its very definition refers to a pair of things. Fix the problem either by deleting both . . .

These trends affected our selection of case studies, our recommendations, and our strategy.

. . . or by reducing the number of items to two.

These trends affected both our recommendations and our strategy.

It’s that simple. And in case you were wondering, some correlative conjunctions work just fine — even elegantly — with more than two items.

You won’t see too much content here at Green Caret about math. Like many writers and editors, I am unapologetically a word person. But (perhaps unlike many writers and editors) I also enjoy working with numbers, and — thanks to an accountant father who trained me early — I can rock a ten-key better than most.

Basic math skills come in handy in my line of work more often than you might think. Consider the following passage:

The 56 survey respondents were not representative of the community, where Native Americans and Blacks each make up one-third of the population. The majority of respondents were Caucasian, with only 0.89% Black and 0.017% Native American. Future studies should include efforts to increase diversity in the survey sample.

If there’s one lesson I learned from doing story problems throughout my educational career, it’s this: Even if your computations seem accurate, look at your final answer and ask, “Does it make sense?” When we apply that common-sense test to the figures in the example, things don’t quite add up.

For example, take a look the figure 0.89%. That’s less than 1%, and 1% means one person out of 100. However, this survey had only 56 respondents, so 0.89% translates to less than one person here! Something is clearly amiss.

Let’s back up and redo the math, dividing integers by 56. Rounding to three places, we get these results:

1 ÷ 56 = 0.017
2 ÷ 56 = 0.035
3 ÷ 56 = 0.054
4 ÷ 56 = 0.071
5 ÷ 56 = 0.089

Any of those numbers look familiar? Sure they do. It looks like the writer got a little confused with moving the decimal point. And hey, there’s no shame in that: it’s been a long time since any of us first learned about percentages.

Remember that 100% equals one (or 1.00). So to convert from a fraction to a percentage, you move the decimal two places to the right.

1 ÷ 56 = 0.017 = 1.7%
2 ÷ 56 = 0.035 = 3.5%
3 ÷ 56 = 0.054 = 5.4%
4 ÷ 56 = 0.071 = 7.1%
5 ÷ 56 = 0.089 = 8.9%

Percentages are always bigger than decimals — that’s why we use them, because whole numbers are easier to grasp than fractions.

With that in mind, let’s look at what’s most helpful to the reader here. With only 56 people in the group we’re talking about, it probably makes sense to talk about the actual number of respondents, especially when it comes to a single Native American individual. (Isn’t it kind of ridiculous to say that the group is 1.7% Native American when that 1.7% equals one person?) However, it’s still important to include the percentages, because the writer is making a comparison with the racial make-up of the community.

Here’s where I ended up with the passage:

The 56 survey respondents were not representative of the community, where Native Americans and Blacks each make up one-third of the population. The majority of respondents were Caucasian, with only five Black (8.9%) and one Native American (1.7%). Future studies should include efforts to increase diversity in the survey sample.

Better, right? Not only are the numbers now accurate, but they also work a little harder for the reader.

Who says all those story problems you did were good for nothing?

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