Friday, June 22, 2018

Writing Makes You Smarter

Recently, I was talking with our CEO, Tyler Jewell, about the importance of writing. Good writing has some obvious benefits, such as ensuring people understand your points in an email and building your personal brand. Tyler attributes much of his success to his habit of writing regularly. But then he said something I hadn't considered before: "Writing makes you smarter."

Tyler is a prolific blogger. He finds that setting aside time to focus solely on the topic you're going to write about helps bring clarity to complex topics and causes you to think about them in ways you haven't before. And when you can speak and write articulately about complex matters, others think you are smarter. But can the writing process itself make you smarter? I was intrigued by this idea, so I took the obvious next step: I decided to write about it.

Writing increases engagement in learning

When I'm not writing regularly, I am more distracted and disorganized, and I'm less motivated to learn new things. In the Psychology Today article How Writing Makes You Happier, Smarter, and More Persuasive, Gregory Ciotti writes:
There’s a certain discipline required to create interesting written work that demands the individual be receptive and focused on finding new sources of information, inspiration, and insight. I’ve read books, listened to podcasts/radio, and watched videos I may have normally put off in order to learn something interesting that I might write about later.
Even if you don't love writing, you've probably noticed that researching a problem piques your interest in learning. If you're trying to figure out which car to buy, suddenly you start noticing all the cars on the road, you ask your friends what they like about theirs, and you start reading reviews on websites you might never have visited otherwise. You become engrossed by the topic and start absorbing information about it everywhere, which causes your brain to kick into high gear and exposes you to new information. The research phase of writing not only makes you more informed, it's also a great way to exercise your brain and make it work more efficiently in all areas of your life.

You too, engineers

While many engineers love to write, many others are terrified to sit down to a blank page that needs to be filled with words instead of code. But writing actually has a lot in common with coding, and it’s critical for your engineering career. Mike Borozdin, VP of Engineering at Ethos Lending who previously worked at DocuSign and Microsoft, said this to Business Insider:
I would advise folks in software to do one thing, and that's write. You need to know how to express yourself. Once you create a successful piece of software, you're probably going to be writing English as much as you're going to be writing Java or Objective C.
When you're designing a feature, writing about it helps you see where there are gaps in your understanding and priorities. Do you know why you're creating this feature and what business problem it solves? Can you succinctly explain its purpose and how it works? By organizing your assumptions and conclusions in a document that you share with other stakeholders, you can be sure that you're coding it right the first time and that everyone is working from the same understanding. In other words, you'll work smarter, not harder.

Once your feature is released, writing becomes even more important. According to Borozdin, whenever his software went viral, he ended up writing probably 10 times more documentation and answers to questions than he wrote code. Writing not only leads to success; it's required once you achieve it.

Feedback is key

It's important to know the basic rules of punctuation and grammar and to take time to structure your writing so that it flows in a logical way. (Although flawless grammar and punctuation are not always critical for conveying meaning, typos can affect how people interpret the emotion of your emails, and at worst they can lead to costly or even fatal mistakes.) Your writing should be easy to understand and not violate the hiccup rule: if you have to stop mid-sentence and re-read the sentence, it has caused you a mental "hiccup" and should be rewritten.

But have you ever carefully reviewed what you wrote (the answer to this should always be "yes") and were surprised when someone spotted a typo you completely missed? When you read your own writing, your brain fills in the gaps, making it hard to spot your mistakes. So no matter how exceptional a writer you are, get your work reviewed. Even professional editors hire editors, because they know it's the only way to improve their writing.

When you receive the feedback, put yourself in an open, non-defensive state of mind, read the feedback carefully and thoroughly, and ask questions if you don't fully understand it. You want to take in the feedback and learn from it, not just mindlessly make the corrections people give you. Over time, you'll hear those comments in your head as you're writing new content, and your writing will get better and better. This will cause people to perceive you as more intelligent than people who make frequent errors. And even though research shows there's no correlation between poor spelling and intelligence, striving for clear and accurate communication is just plain smart.

The bottom line

In summary, a regular writing practice stimulates your brain, makes you more informed, helps you work more efficiently, and helps others see you for the smart person you truly are. So pick a topic and go!

In my next blog post, I'll outline the fundamental steps for starting and completing a writing project. In the meantime, check out my previous posts for tips on grammar, punctuation, and the joys of writing.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns provide a way to refer to a group as a single unit. In fact, “group” is an excellent example of a collective noun; when you refer to a group, you are referring to all members of that group at once as a single unit. Other collective nouns you'll run into frequently are: team, data, network, family, and company.

Because the collective noun is being treated as a single unit, use singular verbs with it. For example, you write:

“The group is going to the event”


“The group are going to the event”

Similarly, you write:

“The network of servers is offline”


“The network of servers are offline”.  

When you follow a collective noun (“network”) with a prepositional phrase that defines what’s in the collective noun (“of servers”), it can be tricky to remember to use the singular verb (“is offline” instead of “are offline”). The reason is that your ear may cling to the last word it heard (“servers”) and think “servers is down” sounds wrong. But “servers” is the object of the prepositional phrase, NOT the subject of the sentence, and it's the subject of the sentence that the verb has to agree with.

If you see a prepositional phrase, take a look at what the sentence would look like without it, and you’ll have an easier time figuring out whether to use the singular or plural. For example, try this:

“The network of servers is down.”

Hmm, shouldn’t it be “servers are down”? Let’s remove the prepositional phrase:

“The network [of servers] is down” -> “The network is down.”

Could I say “The network are down?” Nope! The subject is “network”, not “servers” (“servers” is the object of the preposition), and the verb must agree with the subject, so it should be “The network is down.” So “The network of servers is down” is correct.

Of course, English is crazy, so there’s an exception: if you are putting the emphasis on the individuals in a group, you can use the plural verb. For example:

“After the event, the Tech Content team were trying to find their cars.”

This is the equivalent of saying:

“After the event, the members of the Tech Content team were trying to find their cars.”

In this case, it makes sense to use the plural verb, because using the singular verb would make it sound like the cars are owned by the Tech Content team, not by the individuals on the team:

“After the event, the Tech Content team was trying to find its cars.”

However, I recommend you avoid this awkwardness entirely and refer to the individuals explicitly as I did with “members” in the second example.  

Removing the prepositional phrase to help you determine whether to use the singular or plural verb is similar to a trick you can use when you’re trying to figure out whether to use the subject or object version of a pronoun, such as “and I” or “and me”.

For example:

Sam and I went to the market.
He gave the feedback to Sam and me.

The first sentence is pretty easy. Get rid of “Sam and”, and you’ll quickly see that “I went to the market” is correct, not “Me went to the market.” So you know it’s “Sam and I went to the market.”

But shouldn’t it also be “Sam and I” in the second sentence? If you pull out “Sam and” again, you can try it both ways:

He gave the feedback to me. (Correct)
He gave the feedback to I. (Incorrect)

Why? Because a propositional phrase takes an object, not a subject, so you must use the object form “me”. Therefore, “He gave the feedback to me” is the correct sentence, and if you add back in “Sam and”, you get “He gave the feedback to Sam and me.”

These little mental tricks of pulling out extra information from the sentence to get down to the core components of subject, verb, and object can be very useful for figuring out whether to use the singular vs. plural of a verb and the subject vs. object of a noun.

What other tricks do you use to help with tricky sentences? Add your tips in the comments below!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


We’re all familiar with verbs. They describe the action or state of being. For example:
I run. (“I” is the subject, “run” is the verb) 
They crashed. (“They” is the subject, “crashed” is the verb) 
I think, therefore I am. (“I” is the subject in each clause, “think” and “am” are the verbs) 
The plane is flying overhead. (“plane” is the subject, “flying” is the verb preceded by the helper verb “is”)
But sometimes, a verb is not a verb!

A verbal is a word formed from a verb that functions as a noun, adjective, or adverb. There are three types of verbals:
  • Gerunds
  • Participles
  • Infinitives


Gerunds end in "-ing" and act as a noun:
Flying is my favorite pastime. ("Flying" is the subject of the sentence) 
I love running. ("running" is the direct object of the sentence)


Participles act as adjectives. There are two types of participles: present and past

Present participles, like gerunds, end in "-ing", but they're used as adjectives, not nouns:
The flying squirrel was amazing. ("flying" is an adjective modifying "squirrel") 
The squirrel flying across the sky was amazing. ("flying across the sky" is a present participial phrase acting as an adjective modifying "squirrel")
Past participles usually end in "-ed" or "-en":
The crashed server made us frantic. ("crashed" is an adjective modifying “server”) 
The broken windows leaked a lot of rain. ("broken" is an adjective modifying “windows”)
Don’t confuse gerunds and present participles with verbs in the progressive tense, which come after a form of the verb “to be”:
The plane is flying overhead. (verb) 
The cat was running across the lawn. (verb)
Don't confuse past participles with verbs in the passive voice, which start with was/were:
The windshield was cracked. (verb) 
The windows were broken. (verb)


Infinitives start with “to” and end with the simple present form of a verb, such as “to fly” and “to crack”. They can act as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs.

To live is to adjust
I want to go
I love to fly.
This is the best time to start. (modifies “time”) 
The first attempt to build the Panama Canal ended in failure. (adjectival infinitive phrase modifying “attempt”)
You can tell an infinitive is acting as an adverb if you can put “in order” in front of it and get the same meaning.
To win, you need the highest number of points. (adverb modifying “need”) 
In order to win, you need the highest number of points. (same thing) 
We nailed plywood on the store windows to prepare for the storm. (adverbial infinitive phrase modifying “nailed”). 
We nailed plywood on the store windows in order to prepare for the storm. (same thing)
If you look at the noun or adjective examples of infinitives, however, you can't put "in order" in front of them and get the same meaning. "I love in order to fly" doesn't have the same meaning as "I love to fly", so you know in this case the infinitive is not an adverb.
Note that you use a comma after the adverbial infinitive when it starts a sentence:
To prepare for the storm, we nailed plywood on the store windows.
But you do not separate the adverbial infinitive from the rest of the sentence if it comes at the end of the sentence:
We nailed plywood on the store windows to prepare for the storm.
Don’t confuse infinitives with prepositional phrases. In infinitives, "to" is followed by a verb, whereas in prepositions "to" is followed by a noun.
I want to go. (Infinitive - "to" is followed by the verb "go") 
I went to the park. (Prepositional phrase - "to" is followed by the noun "(the) park")
So that's all you really need to know about verbals. And now I'm guessing (verb) you want to go (infinitive) to the bar (prepositional phrase) and forget all about them.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Prepositions, Pronouns, and Particles

In the last lesson, we took a side trip into the essentials of technical writing. Now, let's get back to some thorny grammar problems. Today, we will cover prepositional phrases, how to use pronouns correctly within them, and how to identify when a preposition is actually a particle (and why you might care). 


A prepositional phrase provides additional information such as when, where, and how. It always starts with a preposition like one of the following words:


(For a list of more prepositions, go here.)

For example, consider this simple sentence:
I drove.
If you want to say where you drove, add a prepositional phrase:
I drove to the store.
You could also use a prepositional phrase to say when you drove:
I drove to the store after midnight.
If you want to say more about which route you drove, put the prepositional phrase after the verb “drove”:
I drove on highway 101 to the store.
If you want to say more about where the store is located, put the prepositional phrase after the noun “store”:
I drove to the store on Broadway.
Notice that you’ve now nested a prepositional phrase within a prepositional phrase, which is perfectly fine. You can use several prepositional phrases to add lots of details:
After midnight, I drove with Sam on highway 101 to the store on Broadway.
A simple prepositional phrase has just a preposition followed by a noun (midnight, Sam, highway 101, store, Broadway) and any modifiers (e.g., sleepy Sam, busy store). 

If the words following the preposition include a subject and verb, though, it’s called a subordinate conjunction.

For example, here are two sentences that use the preposition “after”:
I drove after midnight. (prepositional phrase) 
I drove after Sam fell asleep. (subordinate conjunction)


In prepositional phrases, the words that come after the preposition make up the object of the preposition. In a subordinate conjunction, however, the words that follow the preposition make up a clause, which must include (at minimum) a subject and verb. Why does it matter if it’s a prepositional phrase or a subordinate conjunction? Let’s look at an example:
I’m going with whomever
I’m going with whoever wants to go.
In the first sentence, you don’t have a verb after the preposition, so it’s a prepositional phrase, and the pronoun that follows the preposition must be an object. This means that if you’re using a pronoun like “whoever”, you have to use the object form “whomever”, not the subject form “whoever”.

In the second sentence, however, you have a verb, so it’s a subordinate conjunction. In this case, you use the subject form “whoever” instead of the object form “whomever”.

This causes a lot of confusion. I see this incorrect construction all the time:
Wrong: I’m going with whomever wants to go.
This is wrong because “whomever” cannot be the subject of the verb “wants”. You need the subject form “whoever” instead. 

Now, let’s make things even more confusing:
I’m going with whomever I want.
This sentence is correct! Why? Because in this subordinate conjunction, the subject is “I” and the verb is “want”. It also has an object (“whomever”), which appears at the beginning of the clause in a subordinate conjunction. If you were writing the clause as a sentence, it would be:
I want whomever.
But when the clause is subordinate, the object comes first, which can make it harder to spot the subject vs. the object:
I’m going with whomever I want.
Take another example:
I’m addressing the letter to whom it may concern.
This is a subordinate clause with a subject (“it”), verb (“may concern”), and object (“whom”). 

Here’s another construction that causes problems all the time:
Shiraz and I took the candy. 
She gave the candy to Shiraz and me.
In the first sentence, “Shiraz and I” is the subject of the sentence, so you use the subject form of the pronoun “I”. But in the second sentence, “Shiraz and me” is the object of the preposition, so you use the object form and write “me” instead. You could also say:
She gave Shiraz and me the candy.
In this case, "Shiraz and me" is the indirect object, so you use the object form "me". 

People often say “Me and Shiraz took the candy” or “Shiraz and me took the candy”, which are both wrong and make my ears hurt. But it’s even more painful when people try to sound correct and use the subject when they should be using the object, such as “She gave the candy to Shiraz and I”. (No, she didn’t. She gave it to Shiraz and me.)

So how can you remember all this? First, identify the subject by asking yourself who or what is doing the action. You will then have a much easier time figuring out which word, if any, is the object.

For example, in the candy sentence, here’s what’s going on in my head:

“Okay, she’s giving the candy, so ‘She’ is the subject of the sentence and ‘gave’ is the verb. What did she give? The candy. So that’s the object of the sentence. Now I see a preposition (to), so what follows is either a prepositional phrase or a subordinate clause. I just see nouns, no verbs, so this is a prepositional phrase, which means I need to use the object form ‘me’. The pronouns 'I' and 'me' always come after the other person, so the sentence is: She gave the candy to Shiraz and me.” 


Here's an interesting point that won’t usually affect your writing but is nice to know: sometimes words that look like prepositions are actually part of the verb. These are called particles. For example, in the verb “sign in”, “in” is a particle, not a preposition, and is an important part of the verb. Consider the differences in these two sentences:
Be sure to sign in before you continue. ("in" is a particle) 
The sign in the office welcomes visitors. ("in" is a preposition)
The main reason you might care about identifying a particle vs. a preposition is if you’re tempted to move the parts of the sentence around. The particle must not be separated from the verb, whereas the prepositional phrase can be moved. For example, you can say:
In the office, the sign welcomes visitors.
But you cannot say:
In before you continue, be sure to sign.
Nor can you say:
Before you continue, in be sure to sign. 
Even Yoda doesn’t do this. (Awkward his speech is. Yes. Yes! Yet wise Yoda is.) 


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Essentials of Technical Writing

In this lesson, we cover some of the essentials you should keep in mind when planning, writing, and releasing documentation and training content.

Plan a release based on feedback

At the beginning of a release, don’t just figure out what new features will be in the product and plan to doc those—also check with the product team to find out what areas they think need improvement from the last version of the documentation, and check user forums and support queries for the questions people are asking. Start working on improving this content right at the end of a release, before the next release is really underway when your time will be mostly focused on documenting new features.

Work like an investigative journalist

When you’re first learning about a feature, work like an investigative journalist and focus on “getting the story.” Be curious and keep wondering what the user will ask next. Always ask and answer the question “why?”, and use the active voice wherever possible so that it’s absolutely clear who is doing what and when. For example, consider this sentence:
The configuration must be updated to ensure all new users can access the application.
How does the configuration get updated? Does it happen automatically when a user signs up? Does an admin have to do it?

Instead, write this:
When you add new users in the batch file, you must also update the configuration file to give the new users immediate access to the application.

Write for less-technical users

Developers often create products with a certain audience level in mind, and usually they assume the audience is a lot more familiar with the company's technology than they actually are. In reality, users often need more hand-holding and simple instructions than developers might think. As you’re talking to an engineer or reading their spec or initial write-up, keep an image of a less-savvy user in mind and ask the questions that person would ask.

Never assume the user has read the introductory material, as they probably landed on that page by doing a web search. So make sure there are links back to the introductory material, definitions, etc. If someone unfamiliar with the product can understand it, you’ve communicated your message clearly.

Structuring a topic

Start with the concepts they need to know (link off for more info), then how to do it, and then additional reference info. This follows the “inverted pyramid”:
most important -> less important -> least important
The first paragraph should follow this structure:
  • Basic overview of the feature
  • What problem it solves
  • Who needs this feature
  • Example (if needed)
  • Why this is useful (so what?)
  • Very brief overview of “how”
Then go into details after the intro. For example:
The foo feature enables you to remotely delete all data and applications from a user’s device (also called “wiping” the device). This feature ensures that the data on your users’ devices will not be compromised if their device is lost or stolen. 
A foo agent runs in the background on the user’s device and will therefore decrease battery life slightly, so it is most appropriate for users who a) have confidential data on their devices and b) do not need to maximize battery life. 
After you enable foo on your server and install the agent on the user’s device, you can run foo from the Admin dashboard when you need to wipe the device.
To enable foo on the server:
1. (instructions)
2. (instructions) 
To install the foo agent on a device:
1. (instructions)
2. (instructions) 
To remotely wipe a device:
1. (instructions)
2. (instructions)
Likewise, you should name the topic based on what someone is trying to do:
Remotely wiping a device
is more informative than:
Using the foo feature

Refine the content

Warnings, gotchas, and prerequisites should appear before you tell them how to do something, never after. For example, imagine the support calls you'd get if you wrote this:
To delete data:  
1. Navigate to foo > bar.
2. Enter your admin code.
3. Click Delete.
4. When prompted, click Yes to proceed.  
Note: Only click Yes if you want to delete all the data in your system. You should make a backup before you do this.
Instead, you should write something like this:
To delete all your data: 
WARNING! This procedure will permanently delete all the data in your system. 
1. Make a backup of your data.
2. Navigate to foo > bar.
3. Enter your admin code.
4. Click Delete.
5. If you are sure you want to delete all the data in your system, click Yes to proceed. 
For information on restoring the data from your backup, see Restoring Data.
Notice the intro now indicates this will delete all your data, making a backup is part of the procedure so it's harder to miss, and the confirmation step reiterates that this will delete all your data. Additionally, I've added a helpful link after the procedure that tells you how to restore your data in case you went through these steps and realized you didn't actually want to do this.

This approach puts the most important information first (there's that inverted pyramid again), adds cues to help remind the reader what this is going to do, and anticipates a scenario where someone made a mistake. By thinking through what the reader wants to do and may inadvertently do, you can refine the content to be as helpful as possible.

Simplify the language

Cut out all extraneous words. For example:
made arrangements for -> arranged

made the decision -> decided

made the measurement of -> measured
performed the development of -> developed
is working as expected -> works as expected
Break up long sentences and paragraphs. Use bulleted lists instead of listing options in a sentence, and use bold text to highlight the main points. Remember, readers aren’t here to read; they’re here to get the information as quickly as possible.

There's a very nice example of this here.

Keep the reader’s goal in mind

Why are they here, and what do they want to know? For example, look at this sentence:
This law was introduced in 2011, after a long, drawn-out process of appeals, to ensure that agency workers are given some of the same employment rights as their full-time counterparts.
In this example, the end goal is for the reader to find out about employment rights. The information about the legal appeals process is not essential, so remove it:
This law was introduced in 2011 to ensure that agency workers are given some of the same employment rights as their full-time counterparts.
Many developers want to provide as much specific detail as possible, but this can come at the expense of readers understanding the main point. For example:
The system can process multiple requests per second. One customer processed 5,165,345 requests per second. Another customer processed 10,725,335 requests per second.
Instead, write:
The system can handle enormous loads. One customer’s implementation regularly processes over 10 million requests per second, which was twice as much as their previous system could handle.
Remember, people want information, not just data. So give data as needed but always explain what it means. In this case, people want to know if it can handle very large loads, and giving the higher number as an example is sufficient, plus adding some info about why this number is significant (dig in and find out more about the example…in this case, it’s assuming you did your research and discovered that the load was twice the customer’s previous capacity).

Use the inverted pyramid for sentences as well. For example, instead of this:
You can enter the information manually each time, but it’s better to configure it as a property.
Write this:
Configure the information as a property so you don’t have to enter it manually each time.

Use graphics wisely

Use screenshots when needed to orient the user, but don’t include them in every single step, or they can easily get lost. Animated GIFs are especially nice for showing how to navigate somewhere that’s hard to explain in text, but keep in mind that you must also add Alt text to all graphics to describe what’s happening in the image for those who are visually impaired.

Examples are crucial

Have you ever noticed that you may read the first sentence describing a feature and still not really understand what it is, but then the next sentence gives a real-world example that helps you attach the concepts to something tangible? The best way to clarify your content is through examples. Not everything merits an example, while more complex concepts may need more than one example. When you’re documenting properties, giving examples of actual values helps a lot. And when describing how to write code, samples are essential.

Test all the steps

It’s critical that you test and document all the steps in a procedure and not just rely on the steps that were given to you. People who know the technology well will often leave out small but important steps (such as restarting the server after making configuration changes), which results in support queries.

Review your content

Walk away and then come back and re-read your work to catch mistakes. And then always get a second pair of eyes on your writing. No matter how experienced you are, you will always make mistakes you can’t see, so peer reviews are important.

Likewise, whenever possible, get someone new to the technology to test out the procedures you’ve written.

Lastly, get a subject-matter expert to review your content to make sure you didn’t miss anything, and also ask for best practices that users should know. This will take your content from covering the basics to being more deeply insightful and useful to advanced users.

Get feedback from users

Look at the support queries and questions on user forums to see what people are asking and where they’re running into trouble.


Our ultimate goal is to reduce support queries to zero, so: 
  • Ask good questions up front
  • Structure the content using the inverted pyramid
  • Write simple, accurate, fully tested content that gives information and not just data
  • Provide good examples and graphics where needed
  • Include best practices that will help users go beyond the basic steps
This approach will help ensure the users are successful and the support people are bored.

Additional resources

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Coordinate vs. Cumulative Adjectives

In the previous lesson, we covered hyphens and dashes. Now, we're ready to move on to a tricky topic: coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives.

Coordinate adjectives individually modify a noun and are separated by a comma. For example, look at “heavy” and “bulky” in the following sentence:
  • The heavy, bulky box was awkward to carry. 
You can tell that they're coordinate adjectives because they would still sound correct if you used “and” between them, such as:
  • The heavy and bulky box was awkward to carry. 
or if you changed their order:
  • The bulky, heavy box was awkward to carry. 
Also, if you have adjectives from the same category, such as two opinion adjectives or two size adjectives, you use a comma. For example:
  • The beautiful, elegant box sat on the mantle. 
  • The gigantic, enormous box was impossible to lift. 
Note that adjectives from the same category are rare in technical writing, as they’re mostly used to be emphatic. In tech writing, we aim to be precise but concise.

Cumulative adjectives are used when the adjectives are from different categories (e.g., age and size) or when the final adjective before the noun creates a compound noun. This is especially true when you specify origin (nationality/religion). For example, "and" sounds wrong between these adjectives, so you don't use a comma:
  • Correct: She was a smart Muslim woman 
  • Incorrect: She was a smart and Muslim woman 
But you could say “She was a smart and beautiful woman”, so these would be coordinate adjectives instead of cumulative:
  • She was a smart, beautiful woman. 
Here comes the crazy part: cumulative adjectives must be in a specific order based on their category. This order is as follows, with examples for each category:
  1. Opinion: good, attractive, delicious 
  2. Size: large, small, enormous 
  3. Age/Condition: old, new, modern, worn 
  4. Length or shape: long, short, square 
  5. Color: red, blue, green 
  6. Origin (nationality, religion): American, Muslim 
  7. Material: plastic, wooden, cotton 
  8. Purpose: electric (wire), tennis (shirt) 
For example, these are in the correct order:
  • An attractive young American lady 
  • A modern Japanese electric car 
  • A big square blue box 
But the following examples are NOT in the correct order and sound all wrong:
  • An attractive American young lady 
  • A Japanese modern electric car 
  • A blue square big box 
This is hard to memorize, and it just takes practice. Most native English speakers have no idea that this order even exists; they just do it naturally and know something is wrong when they hear them out of order. I recently told a friend about this order and he laughed at me, refusing to believe this rule exists, until I started rearranging adjectives in a sentence. His eyes got wide, and he quickly changed the subject.

There are sites that show a much longer and more detailed list of categories, but it's simpler to stick with the more concise list above. In fact, if you search for "cumulative adjectives", you'll find a different list on most pages. I've chosen the list that I think covers the most important categories.


Coordinate adjectives are separated by a comma and sound fine if you change their order or insert "and" between them instead of a comma. Cumulative adjectives are not separated by a comma and must be placed in a specific order based on their category.

In the next lesson, we'll take a break from punctuation and talk about the essentials of technical writing.

Additional resources

Hyphens and Dashes

In the last lesson, we took a deeper look at commas. In this lesson, we will explore the difference between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. 


A hyphen connects two words that are closely related and are acting as a single word. For example:
  • Two-thirds of survey respondents said they needed additional training.
  • This number is toll-free. 
However, in some cases, you only connect the words with a hyphen when they are acting as an adjective modifying the word that follows them:
  • This architecture supports high availability when traffic increases. (“availability” is a noun, and “high” is an adjective modifying it)
  • To handle traffic spikes, design a high-availability architecture. (“high-availability” is a compound adjective modifying “architecture”)
  • Next, you check in your files. (“check” is a verb, “in” is an adverb modifying “check”)
  • The server sends a check-in notification. (“check-in” is a compound adjective modifying “notification”)
Words that are hyphenated often end up as open compounds (that is, they have a space instead of hyphen). “Open source” is an example of an open compound:
  • This software is open source.
  • This open source software is free to use. (No hyphen between "open" and "source")
And eventually, they may even become a single word. For example, "email" evolved like this:
Electronic mail -> e-mail -> email

“Log in” is still two words when it’s a verb:
  • You can now log in to the application.
But it’s a single word when it acts as an adjective:
  • Your login information was sent to your email address. 
Note: Why wouldn't you say "You can now log into the application"? Aren't you supposed to combine "in" and "to" when they're next to each other? In cases like "Look into this for me", the answer is yes. But in this example, "log in" is a phrasal verb, meaning that the verb "log" and the adverb "in" must go together and act as a single verb. Therefore, if you combined "in" and "to" to make "into", you would be splitting the "log in" phrasal verb in half, and "log" would be sad that "in" ran off with that scoundrel "to".

The Microsoft Manual of Style (and some other style guides) instructs us NOT to use hyphens after “-ly” adverbs:
  • These are often-asked questions. 
  • These are frequently asked questions. (No hyphen after an "-ly" adverb)
Irritating side note: Some grammar guides say you DO hyphenate after an “-ly” adverb IF the second word in the compound is the past participle. In this case, “frequently-asked questions” would require a hyphen, since “asked” is the past participle of the verb “to ask”, whereas “frequently upsetting incidents” would not use a hyphen, because "upsetting" is the present participle (not the past participle) of the verb "to upset". Confused? Don't be, because we’re going to ignore that stupid rule and stick with the Microsoft Manual of Style!


There are two types of dashes: en dashes and em dashes. En dashes are longer than hyphens but shorter than em dashes.

-    hyphen
–   en dash
—  em dash

En dash
En dashes are uncommon. They connect two things that are related to each other by distance, essentially replacing the word “to”. For example:
  • Take the San Francisco–New York flight.
  • I read this in the May–September issue of the magazine.
  • This certificate is valid 2017–2018.
Note: If you want to use "from" in the last example, use "to" instead of the en dash. For example:

  • This certificate is valid from 2017 to 2018.
  • This certificate is valid 2017–2018.
But NOT:
  • This certificate is valid from 2017–2018.

To type an en dash, see:

Em dash
The em dash is longer and is more common than the en dash. It sets off and emphasizes additional information in the sentence and can be used in place of commas, a colon, or parentheses—as I just did in this sentence. For example:
  • When the car was finally delivered three months after it was ordered, she no longer wanted it.
  • When the car was finally delivered, three months after it was ordered, she no longer wanted it.
  • When the car was finally delivered—three months after it was ordered—she no longer wanted it. 
The second example uses commas to offset and emphasize the phrase. The third example uses em dashes to emphasize it even more, indicating how irritating it was that it took three months for the car to arrive.
Here's an example of an em dash replacing a colon:
  • The white sand, the warm water, the sparkling sun—this is what brought them to Hawaii.
To type an em dash, see:


Hyphens connect two words that are closely related. En dashes connect two things that are related by time and replace the word "to". Em dashes set off a part of the sentence to give it extra emphasis. 

In the next lesson, we will look at coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives.

Additional resources