Rules and Tips for DoD Writers

Article 12 min
Improve your writing and boost credibility by avoiding these grammar, sentence, structure, and style goofs. Even the most well-trained writer can get tripped up from time to time. Use this guide to create your own cheat sheet of rules for using proper punctuation, grammar, sentence structure and word choice.

Every typographical error that appears in a publication chips away at its credibility. Every time a writer uses improper grammar in a story, readers wonder why a trained writer has made such a blatant error. Nothing is more important to a military news organization than ensuring everything it publishes, broadcasts or posts on the Internet is accurate - from spelling and grammar to facts.

Write Simply, Be Clear

Perfect spelling and grammar are worthless if jargon, misplaced modifiers and vague language gum up your sentence. Your reader won't understand your meaning, and your message will be lost. Here are some tips to keep your writing on point.

Persuade With Parallel Structure
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Parallel structure, the repetition of a chosen grammatical form, establishes a flow that increases readability. Readers can follow along with ease, and repetition acts as a tool of persuasion.

Example: I admire people who are reliable, honest and sincere. Rewritten into individual sentences, you see that this meets parallel structure.

  • I admire people who are reliable.
  • I admire people who are honest.
  • I admire people who are sincere.

Don't Leave Them Hanging
Improve your writing and boost credibility by avoiding these grammar, sentence, structure and style goofs.
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Don't leave your readers out in the cold with sentence fragments. A fragment is an incomplete thought disguised as a complete sentence with the help of misplaced punctuation. Fragments are easy for you to miss because your brain completes the sentence as you're reading it. Look at the following sentence carefully to see if you can spot the fragment.

Example: Jiggling his foot nervously, Sgt. Marshall sat outside Col. Martin's office. To present his social media strategy for dealing with trolls.

  • Correct: Jiggling his foot nervously, Sgt. Marshall sat outside Col. Martin's office, waiting to present his social media strategy for dealing with trolls.
  • Correct: Sitting outside Col. Martin's office, Sgt. Marshall jiggled his foot nervously as he waited to present his social media comment strategy for dealing with trolls.

Monkeys Adore Bananas
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In a sentence written in the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action (monkeys adore bananas). In a sentence written in the passive voice, the subject receives the action (bananas are adored by monkeys). Active voice strongly lends itself to journalistic writing because it promotes clear, concise sentences, while passive voice can be wordy and vague, particularly where the responsibility for actions and results is concerned.

  • Active: The candidate believes that Congress must place a ceiling on the budget.
  • Passive: It is believed by the candidate that a ceiling must be placed on the budget by Congress.
  • Active: Researchers earlier showed that high stress can cause heart attacks.
  • Passive: It was earlier demonstrated that heart attacks can be caused by high stress.
  • Active: The dog bit the man.
  • Passive: The man was bitten by the dog.

Here are some tips for converting sentences from the passive to the active voice.

  • Look for a “by” phrase (e.g., “by the dog” in the last example above). If you find one, the sentence may be in the passive voice. Rewrite the sentence so that the subject buried in the “by” clause is closer to the beginning of the sentence.
  • If the subject of the sentence is left anonymous, see if you can fix that by introducing a general term, such as “researchers,” or “the study,” or “experts in this field.”

This is not to say you should never choose passive voice. Here are some good reasons to choose passive over active voice:

  • To emphasize the action rather than the actor.
    • Example: After lengthy debate, the proposal was endorsed by the long-range planning committee.
  • To keep the subject and focus consistent throughout the passage.
    • Example: The data processing department recently presented what proved to be a controversial proposal to expand its staff. After a long debate, the proposal was endorsed by . . .
  • To be tactful, i.e., purposefully vague by not naming the actor.
    • Example: The procedures were somehow misinterpreted.
  • To describe a condition in which the actor or actors are unknown or cannot be efficiently specified.
    • Example: Every year, thousands of people are diagnosed with cancer.
  • To create an authoritative tone.
    • Example: Visitors are not allowed on base after 7 p.m. weeknights.

I Saw An Elephant In My Pajamas
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"I saw an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I'll never know," is one of the corniest dad jokes and also a misplaced modifier. A misplaced modifier is a phrase, clause or word that has been separated from the word it modifies, creating confusion, illogic and sometimes hilarity.

  • Incorrect: At the park, I noticed my neighbor walking her dog in heels.
  • Correct: I noticed my neighbor wearing heels while walking her dog at the park.

Not all misplaced modifiers are easy to spot, but they can still cause confusion or even change the meaning. Let's look at what happens when we move the modifier around in a sentence.

  • The teacher just nodded to Sanji as she entered the class.
  • The teacher nodded just to Sanji as she entered the class.

By moving the modifier, we changed the meaning from the teacher only nodding and not extending any other greeting, to the teacher nodding only to Sanji, no other students.

  • I’m going to try to get a haircut again.
  • I’m going to try again to get a haircut.

Moving the modifier changed the meaning from someone getting a second haircut to someone who didn't get one in the first place.

Vague Is Never In Vogue
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Vague and abstract language confuses the reader, destroys your point and makes you sound pompous. Use clear and concrete language.

  • Incorrect: The weather was of an extreme nature on the West Coast.
  • Correct: California had unusually cold weather last week.

What does "of an extreme nature" mean, and where on the West Coast did this take place? Say what you mean and get to your point. Avoid overusing there is, there are, it is, it was, etc. These are squatters that live rent-free inside your sentences without providing extra value or efficiently conveying meaning.

  • Incorrect: There is a case of meningitis that was reported in the newspaper.
  • Correct: The newspaper reported a case of meningitis.
  • Incorrect: There are some revisions that must be made.
  • Correct: Please make some revisions.

Double Negatives Battle Each Other
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Comedian Groucho Marx famously said, "I cannot say that I do not disagree with you," and provided perhaps the best illustration for how a double (or even triple) negative conveys lukewarm writing. Worse yet, the double negatives fight each other and can change the intended meaning from negative to positive.

  • Incorrect:I wasn't displeased, but I wasn't elated either about my grade.
  • Correct: I was happy with my grade.
  • Incorrect: He wasn't irresponsible with his car.
  • Correct: He was responsible with his car.

It is always better to simplify your writing when you can.

Subjects and Verbs Cannot Agree to Disagree
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Subject-verb disagreement can trip up even the most experienced writers. Use this handy check to determine if you're on the right track.

  1. Find the subject.
  2. Determine if it is singular or plural.
  3. Replace the subject with the appropriate personal pronoun (i.e. one with "he/she/it" or many with "they")
  4. Use the replacement pronoun with the verb.
  5. Read the sentence, using the correct verb, for validation.

Let's use the check on this sentence:
An enormous banner for the gate costs $400.

  1. Find the subject: enormous banner.
  2. Substitute the subject with the pronoun "it."
  3. Check for verb validation: It costs $400.
  4. Read the sentence using the correct verb if a change was made.

Why This Check Works:

  • In reading material, the pronouns he, she and it are used more than any other words as subjects.
  • You have been exposed repeatedly to the correct verbs to agree with these pronouns.
  • You have developed an ear for the correct verbs to use with he, she, it, and they as subjects.

Advanced Cases of Subject-Verb Agreement

Here are some advanced cases of subject-verb agreement that you'll need to recognize so you can choose the correct verbs. Everybody / Anybody / Somebody / Nobody/ Everyone / Anyone / Someone / No One

  • These subjects are all singular.
  • Examples:
    • I don’t know if anybody is available right now.
    • Nobody is here to give you that answer.

Club / Team / Family / Army

  • These subjects are also singular even though they are talking about groups of people.
  • Examples:
    • My club is hosting a game night.
    • The Army is sending several troops to the combat zone.
    • The squad packed its equipment for the hike.
    • The college raised its tuition.

Police

  • Usually, “police” is plural.
  • Examples:
    • The police are investigating the incident.
    • Police have placed three suspects in custody.
  • When describing an individual member of the police, you may use the gender-neutral term police officer.
  • Example:
    • A police officer has been dispatched to your location.

People / Children / Men / Women / Mice / Feet

  • These words are irregular plural nouns (nouns that are not formed by adding -s) and they take the plural form of the verb.
  • Examples:
    • Our children are doing very well in their foreign-language school.
    • The people like to be informed about changes to traffic patterns.
    • My feet are cold.

Both Of / A Few Of / Many / Several

  • These words always take the plural form of the verb.
  • Examples:
    • Both of the soldiers are going to deploy with COMCAM.
    • A few of these cameras have damage from weather conditions.
    • Many of the offices in this building don’t have windows.
    • Several of the students aren’t going to be able to take the test this week.

Some / Most

  • These words are plural when they stand on their own.
  • Examples:
    • Some say the ghost still walks these halls on a clear night.
    • Most will never see the inside of a prison.

If the word is modifying something, then the rule above applies - the verb agrees with what is being modified.

  • Examples:
    • Some people say the ghost walks these halls.
    • Some guy says the team did not practice enough.
    • Most cars are automatic.
    • Most of the test is multiple choice.

Debatable: Is “Data” Singular Or Plural?

  • Technically, data is plural (the singular form is “datum”). However, data is more commonly understood to mean information, which makes it singular. Both forms are correct.
  • Examples:
    • The data is accurate.
    • The data are accurate.

Unlike in other languages that require that subject and verb agree in both number and gender, English verbs are not conjugated for gender, so they must match in number.

Pronouns Are the Workhorses of Speech
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A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. In the sentence, "Joe saw Jill, and he waved at her," the pronouns he and her take the place of Joe and Jill, respectively. Sometimes writers confuse subject and object pronouns.

  • Incorrect: Stephanie is smarter than me.
  • Correct: Stephanie is smarter than I.

In this example, the pronoun functions as the subject; the "am" is implied in the correct sentence.

  • Incorrect: Daniel went to the store with Lisa and I.
  • Correct: Daniel went to the store with Lisa and me.

In this example, the pronoun functions as the object of the sentence. The pronouns who, that and which become singular or plural depending on the subject. If the subject is singular, use a singular verb. If it is plural, use a plural verb.

Example: He is the only one of those men who is always on time. The word who refers to one. Therefore, use the singular verb is. Sometimes we must look more closely to find a verb’s true subject.

Example: He is one of those men who are always on time. The word who refers to men. Therefore, use the plural verb are. In sentences like this last example, many would mistakenly insist that one is the subject, requiring is always on time. But look at it this way: Of those men who are always on time, he is one. Pronouns that are singular (I, he, she, everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, no one, nobody, someone, somebody, each, either, neither, etc.) require singular verbs. This rule is frequently overlooked when using the pronouns each, either and neither, followed by of. Those three pronouns take singular verbs. Do not be misled by what follows "of."

Examples:

  • Each of the girls sings well.
  • Either of us is capable of doing the job.
  • Neither of them is available to speak right now.

When "each" follows a noun or pronoun in certain sentences, even experienced writers sometimes can become confused.

  • Incorrect: The women each gave her approval.
  • Correct: The women each gave their approval.
  • Incorrect: The words "are and "there" each ends with a silent vowel.
  • Correct: The words "are" and "there" each end with a silent vowel.

"Each" is not the subject but rather an adjunct describing the true subject. Reflexive pronouns return the action to the actor. Without them, we might be stuck with sentences like Joe helped Joe.

  • Incorrect: See myself with questions.
  • Correct: If you have questions, see me.
  • Correct: I did it myself.
  • Correct: He gave himself a haircut.

When a pronoun is linked with a noun by "and," mentally remove the and + noun phrase to avoid trouble.

  • Incorrect: Her and her friend came over.
  • Correct: She and her friend came over.

If we remove and her friend, we have the incorrect Her came over.

You Need a Reason to Use a Comma
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The most overlooked crime in punctuation might be the overuse of commas. If you are tempted to put in a comma but you don’t know why you are using it, leave it out. Let’s take a look at the places you might be tempted to use a comma.

  • No comma is needed between time, date and place.
  • No comma is needed before the “and” in a series unless the series is complex or somehow otherwise confusing.

A comma alone is not strong enough to join two independent clauses, i.e., two sets of words in which the subjects and verbs have worked together and completed their thoughts. That just creates a comma splice.

Example: Tomatoes are not actually vegetables, they are fruit. Look at the group of words on either side of the comma. If they can stand independently, a comma isn't strong enough to glue them together. Fix it by adding conjunction after the comma or by putting a period in place of the comma and making two separate sentences.

  • Incorrect: Tomatoes are not actually vegetables, they are fruit.
  • Correct: Tomatoes are not actually vegetables, but they are fruit.

Apostrophes are Misunderstood
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Know the basic rules for apostrophes and possession. Don’t worry about the exceptions. Deal with the repeat offenders first. Apostrophes are mainly used for:

  • Possession
  • Contractions
  • Plurals of a single letter

The most common usage is for possession. There are exceptions, but the 90% rule, identifying the owners, will serve you well the majority of the time. Solve the singular-or-plural problem first; then, add the apostrophe to show possession.

  • If the owner word end in "s," add an apostrophe only.
  • Example:
    • The students' project was ruined by the rain
  • If the owner word does not end in "s," add an apostrophe and an "s."
  • Example:
    • The student's grade reflected his lack of studying.
  • Notice how the apostrophe ends up "pointing" at the owner. This helps to distinguish where to put the apostrophe in the case of plural possession.

The main exception is the difference between “its” (possessive) and “it’s.” The mission has a flaw in its assumption, and it’s time to fix it. Consult The AP Stylebook for exceptions!

Write On!

Now that you've got the basics (and some wild exceptions) under your belt, you can avoid these common mistakes and be confident in the message you are trying to convey.

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