Archive for October, 2011


Keeping it straight: Parallel structure

October 31, 2011

Each week or so, I try to email my team of authors a writing tip that focuses on typical errors I find in some of their writing. Last week’s tip was on parallel structure. I’ve reproduced it here after removing any identifying information. The examples are from the oil and gas industry, but the same writing principles apply no matter what industry you’re working in.

To understand parallel structure, I’ll show you some examples that aren’t parallel, then describe how to fix them.

Let me give you an example of non parallel structure that I saw recently:

The […] Plant is designed to remove CO2 from the feed gas, compressed and then injected 2.5 km underground into the […]  Formation.

The bits that make this sentence sounds awkward are the bits that’s aren’t ‘parallel’; i.e. ‘remove’, ‘compressed’, ‘injected’. These verbs are all over the place – ‘to remove’ is in the future tense (something will happen), whereas ‘compressed’ and ‘injected’ are in the past tense (something has happened); present tense (happening now) would be words like ‘compresses’ or ‘compressing’.

To make this sentence ‘parallel’, I pick one verb tense and stick to it for all verbs in that sentence. So, this sentence could be rewritten in two different ways, depending on the context of the sentences around it:

  • Future tense: ‘The […] Plant is designed to remove CO2 from the feed gas, compress it, and then inject it into the […] Formation, 2.5 km underground.’
  • Present tense: ‘The […] Plant removes CO2 from the feed gas, compresses it, and then injects it into the […] Formation, 2.5 km underground.’

Here’s another example:

Examples of prevention measures include leak minimisation, minimisation of hazardous inventory, optimising layout design and reducing manning levels.

And here it is reworded so that the verb tenses are parallel:

Examples of prevention measures include minimising leaks, minimising hazardous inventory, optimising layout design, and reducing manning levels.

Another parallel alternative could have been:

Examples of prevention measures include leak minimisation, hazardous inventory minimisation, layout design optimisation, and manning levels reduction.

However, I found that alternative to be very clunky, so I went with the ‘-ing’ verbs instead.

And here’s a final example:

The purposes of the […] Facilities are to:

  • receive the raw feed…
  • slug storage capacity…
  • reduce the gas pressure…
  • liquid pressure reduction
  • dedicated hydrocarbon/MEG aqueous phase separation
  • produce a stabilised condensate stream…
  • temporary storage for liquids…

You can often figure out where the structure isn’t parallel by splitting a list of items into bullet points, then looking at the first word or two of each point. Here’s that example above made parallel (strikethroughs = unnecessary words; italics = words I added to make the structure parallel; I removed other words that weren’t necessary for this tip):

The purposes of the […] Facilities are to:

  • receive the raw feed ….
  • provide slug storage capacity …
  • reduce the gas pressure …
  • reduce the liquid pressure reduction
  • provide dedicated facilities for hydrocarbon/MEG aqueous phase separation
  • produce a stabilised condensate stream …
  • provide temporary storage for liquids ….

Notice how all the bullet points are now parallel — each starts with a verb (receive, provide, reduce, produce), and each verb is the same tense. And each bullet point could now stand alone with the introductory sentence fragment to make a complete sentence (e.g. The […] Facilities provide slug storage capacity… is a sentence, whereas The […] Facilities slug storage capacity… isn’t).

Parallel structure makes your writing easier to read and understand because your reader doesn’t have to stop and try to figure out what you are trying to say.

See also these blog posts of mine:


A bit of an understatement…

October 28, 2011

Seen in a safety and risk assessment document I’ve been editing:

The Explosion Study assessed several mitigation options to reduce the blast effects on the Administration Buildings, including relocation, water deluge, and installing a blast wall. The Administration Building was relocated as a result of this study.

I think that last sentence is a clear case of understatement!

By the way, this risk assessment was done a few years ago, long before any soil was turned, so the Admin Building was only moved on paper. This is why they do extensive ‘front end engineering and design’ before building a major processing plant and its associated infrastructure.


Word: Keyboard shortcut for adding a comment

October 27, 2011

I add a lot of comments to the documents I edit in Word. And I finally went hunting for a keyboard shortcut for adding a comment balloon. It’s obscure and not listed on the tooltip for the ‘New Comment’ icon on the Review ribbon in Word 2007 (or later). And even looking for it in the Word Options > Customize > Keyboard Shortcuts area for the Review Tab was an exercise in ‘Huh?’ But I found it!

It’s Ctrl+Alt+M (that’s intuitive… Not!)

If you go looking for it yourself in the keyboard shortcuts list, you’ll find it under InsertAnnotation in the list of Review tab commands.


Edit a PhD science thesis?

October 20, 2011

A fellow tech writer/editor asked for my advice a few weeks ago. Someone she knows had asked her about editing his PhD thesis, and she wanted some idea from me as to what she should charge.

The brief was:

Review of a PhD science student thesis (approximately 200 pages) where English is a second language


  • Review thesis, right use of vocabulary, grammar and sentence structures
  • Review overall chapters, re-arrange paragraphs for easy understanding, contents continuation
  • Format and style of the thesis is not important at this stage

How much and how long?

As my colleague had never tackled this sort of quote before, she wanted my advice on how to respond. I’ve only ever worked on one PhD thesis (and that was really just sorting out crazy Word formatting and cross-referencing), so I didn’t feel that I could help her very much, but I did have this to say…

My response

Personally I wouldn’t touch a thesis, especially a PhD thesis in science! But that’s just me.

I don’t think you can charge by the page for this sort of thing; you’d need to charge by the hour, and NOT as a total job. He (she?) wants more than just proofing — he wants a substantial edit where it’s up to you to rearrange his ideas. And English is his 2nd language, so there’s a good chance the thesis will need a LOT of work just to get the sentences sorted out.

Before you think about quoting, see these resources:

I’d also STRONGLY suggest you ask to see some sample pages before you commit to anything. Then perhaps time yourself on editing say two pages to see how long it takes for XXX words. For the ease of the maths, let’s say it takes 1 hour to do a page, and there are 200 pages. Let’s say you charge $100 per hour — that means that 200 pages will be $20,000 (and 200 hours commitment for you — that’s five weeks full-time at 40 hours a weeks), plus a ‘fudge factor’ for unseen contingencies. He’s a PhD student — I doubt he can come up with $20K. Hell, I doubt he’s thinking more than $1000, which for 200 pages is $5 per hour — I bet you won’t work for that! I also expect he wants it done within 2 weeks…

And that’s just for the proofing side of it. Substantive editing where you have to sort out his ideas and arrange them to suit the supervisor, the academic institution’s requirements/style guides/referencing standards etc. will add more hours on top of that. His ideas may already be in good shape, but there’s a chance that they aren’t, especially as English is not his first language. Then there’s getting the formatting in order…

As I said, I wouldn’t touch it, but I suggest you get a small sample from him (from the middle of the document, not the overview or abstract) and time yourself to get an idea of the workload before committing yourself (200 hours is more than a month’s FULL TIME and you already have a full-time job). The sample will also tell you if the science he’s writing about is something you understand enough to be able to craft intelligible sentences, or if it requires a PhD in the subject yourself.

[Links last checked October 2011]


The state I’m in

October 18, 2011

I live in Western Australia and our state’s official abbreviation is ‘WA’, which also happens to be the official abbreviation for the state of Washington in the US.

In times gone by, I have received mail from another country that’s gone via Washington state before being redirected by some clever person at the US Postal Service who realized that ‘Perth, WA’ was in Australia, not the US.

As a result, I always write out ‘Western Australia’ in full (where I can) whenever I’m buying online or dealing with someone who will mail me something. I can’t trust a computer database, computer sorting robot, or the postal service people to differentiate between WA for Western Australia or WA for Washington state, even though US postal codes are five digits (or more if they use the extra 4-digit exact location identifier) and Australian postal codes are only four digits.

So I got a bit of a surprise when I was completing an online form recently and saw that the cities and towns for Western Australia and Washington state were displayed even though I’d narrowed my location by country and state.

Choose the country, choose the state

Choose the country, choose the state

But where did those cities come from?

But where did those cities come from? Port Angeles and Puyallup are in the US!

Someone wrote a program that didn’t include a validation check to ensure that only the cities for the state chosen for a particular country were displayed — it looks as though the code finds any instance of WA and displays the cities associated with that state code and totally ignores the country code. Which then begs the question, why bother forcing the user to select a country at all if the city results are going to display whatever is associated with the state code?

[Links last checked October 2011]


Word: Set the language for a style

October 17, 2011

As a follow-up to my post about setting the language for all elements of a Word document, except styles, here’s how you set the language for a style. Do this in the template and it will apply to all documents you create from that template.

You have to set the language one style at a time. If you don’t have a lot of styles, this shouldn’t take too much time, and, if you do it in the template, it’s a one-off task.

By the way, if the style is based on another style (e.g. Normal), then changing the language in the one it’s based on, seems to change it for the linked styles too.

  1. Display the Styles pane:
  2. Click the drop-down arrow next to the style you want to change.
  3. Select Modify.
  4. Click the Format button, then select Language.
  5. Select the language you want to apply to this style, then click OK twice to exit.
  6. Repeat Steps 2 to 5 to set the language for each other style.

[Links last checked October 2011]


Word: Macro to set the language for most elements

October 14, 2011

I needed to set the language for all elements of a Word 2007 template to English (Australia). I could set the language for the body of the document easily enough via a simple macro, but this didn’t set the language for the headers, footers, text boxes, or the styles (yes, you can set the language for a style!). (Update September 2018: I now have a macro for setting the language for all styles at once:

So I asked over at the Microsoft Answers forums and the ever-helpful Greg Maxey came up with this macro, which sets the language for all elements of the document, except the styles. As I had fewer than 20 styles in the template, setting the language for those manually wasn’t an arduous task.

Here’s Greg’s macro — change the language from wdEnglishAUS (two places) if you don’t want Australian English (links to the available languages after the macro).

Public Sub SetLangAllRanges()
Dim rngStory As Word.Range
Dim lngJunk As Long
Dim oShp As Shape
lngJunk = ActiveDocument.Sections(1).Headers(1).Range.StoryType
For Each rngStory In ActiveDocument.StoryRanges
  'Iterate through all linked stories
    On Error Resume Next
    rngStory.LanguageID = wdEnglishAUS
    Select Case rngStory.StoryType
      Case 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
        If rngStory.ShapeRange.Count > 0 Then
          For Each oShp In rngStory.ShapeRange
            If oShp.TextFrame.HasText Then
               oShp.TextFrame.TextRange.LanguageID = wdEnglishAUS
            End If
        End If
      Case Else
        'Do Nothing
    End Select
    On Error GoTo 0
    'Get next linked story (if any)
    Set rngStory = rngStory.NextStoryRange
  Loop Until rngStory Is Nothing
End Sub

Languages available in Word, with their wd language ID code:

[Links last checked April 2021; if this macro has helped you, consider making a small donation of thanks to Greg at]


Word: Mail merge loses merged data from page 2 header

October 10, 2011

Here’s a strange one. My client had done a mail merge, but when he printed the letters, the merged fields in the header on page 2 of the 2-page letter were printed as field names, not as the field data. He said that the letters looked fine in the preview in Word 2007, but they didn’t print fine.

I though maybe it was a printer driver issue, so I asked him to print them to PDF to see if that made any difference. Nope. The page 2 headers still ‘printed’ the field names not the data.

Maybe it was a Word issue?

I ran the mail merge on the copies of the letter and the data (in an Excel spreadsheet) I had on my computer. They looked fine in preview mode… and they printed fine with the headers on page 2 correctly printing the field data, not the field names. Hmmm.

I called him and found out he was printing the letters from a network drive. I didn’t think that should be an issue, but to eliminate it I asked him to copy the letters to his local drive and print from there. Guess what? They printed fine! The data in the headers on page 2 printed as it was meant to.

The lesson we learned from this:

  • Mail merged letters may not print correctly from a network drive. Save them to your local machine and print from there. If you need an archive copy, save them to the network drive too but copy them back to your local machine if you ever need to print them again.

I can’t believe that printing them from a network location would cause this issue. Surely mail merge is a function used by larger companies, not your average ‘Jane Bloggs’ user who just wants to print a one-off letter to one person. Larger companies have networks and network drives, and many force you to save your documents to these drives. So not being able to print a mail merge letter correctly from one of these drives would seem odd, especially as the data was stored in the same (network) folder as the letters. Very weird.


See all fonts on your computer at once

October 7, 2011

From Chuck Green’s Ideabook ( newsletter came this:

Wordmark is wonderful online tool that allows you to see words and phrases in all of the typefaces loaded on your computer. So, for example, I can type in “ideabook” and see it rendered in all of the hundreds of the typefaces on my system — every family and every typeface within them.

You can see Wordmark in action here:

Type a word in the box at the top, select your settings from the top bar (optional), then click Load Fonts.

Here’s an example of what you get (I left the default ‘wordmark’ as the word to render):

Example fonts on my computer

Example fonts on my computer

[Links last checked September 2011]


Suspicious Google search results

October 6, 2011

I was doing a Google search for an ex-colleague the other day. In the search results I saw this:

That looked suspicious. What on earth were a whole lot of ‘Edwards’ doing listed under flight information? Were they employees? Or was this an passenger list? Or some other list?

Whatever it was, I suspect it wasn’t meant to be public!

Curiosity got the better of me so I went to the linked page. There was nothing on it related to any names at all, let alone a slew of ‘Edwards’. So I checked the source code — nothing in the HTML markup either.

So that got me wondering as to where this list of names had come from. Was it a list previously associated with this page and Google was reporting what was in its cache? Was it a list drawn from a (secure?) database — if so, why weren’t the names showing on the page or in its markup? Were the names employees or a flight manifest? If so, isn’t this a major breach of security?

I still don’t know how those names got there or where they came from, but it made me suspicious of the sort of data that Google might have access to without anyone knowing it — such as staff or passenger lists.

BTW, I didn’t find my ex-colleague…