Grammar and Punctuation

This page is part of a larger resource on technical writing for microwave engineers. This page has info on the grammar and punctuation issues you might face. Why should you care, you ask? Because if you don't use good grammar and proper punctuation, your writing won't be taken seriously. And we here at Microwaves101 know that there are times you need to be serious.


Capitalization in Acronyms

Other Capitalization Issues






Abbreviations are shortened forms of words. Acronyms are abbreviations that are pronounced as words. Dont begin a sentence with an abbreviation, it's just awkward. Don't assume that everyone knows all the abbreviations and acronyms you're using--spell it out the first time you use each one. You don't need to capitalize acronym explanations, i.e. CMOS (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor). This is an insult to your reader's intelligence.

Don't be unnecessarily cheap with letters unless you you are just taking notes (what does it really cost you to spell out Monday instead of Mon. or October instead of Oct.?) "MA", "AZ", "GA" etc were invented by the Post Office to help people with poor penmanship see their letters arrive at the intended destination. Take the extra time to type out Massachusetts, Arizona and Georgia. An exception to this might be in graphs or charts, where you need to squeeze in extra information.

Sometimes, an acronym might be used different ways by different people (such as your boss). If you aren't sure, look it up in a dictionary, your company style guide, or the ultra-cool Acronym dictionary.

Capitalization in acronyms and abbreviations

Sometimes acronyms are written with all capital letters (CAD or CMOS); sometimes all lower case letters (radar or sonar). Here are the three general rules of acronyms which are all you will ever need to know:

1. If the acronym spells out a pronounceable syllable or syllables, it should be written in lower case.

2. If the acronym spells out an American English word that has a different meaning, or it is not a pronounceable as a word, it should be spelled out in capital letters.

3. If the acronym is pronounceable, but the common usage is for the speaker to say each letter, it should also be spelled out in capital letters. Like "OK", which is not actually an acronym, but illustrates this point well.

Here are some examples that are easy to figure out once you know the rules. "Computer aided design" is abbreviated CAD, while cad is reserved for "an ungentlemanly person". Radar, meaning "radio direction and ranging" is not capitalized because there was no radar in the dictionary until the acronym was coined. CMOS needs capitals because it is unpronounceable on its own. Does everybody get this OK?

Abbreviations for material compounds have only one capitalization rule. The first letter of an element is always capitalized when it is abbreviated; the second letter isn't. That's all there is to it. So gallium arsenide is abbreviated GaAs.

Sometimes unit abbreviations will contain a mixture of capitals and lower case letters, such as dBm. The thing to watch for are units that were named for someone. Like amps, bels, farads, henries, newtons, siemens, watts, etc. The names are capitalized when units are abbreviated, but the units are not. So microfarad is abbreviated mF, decibel is dB, nanosecond is ns. Get it?

The metric system has its own capitalization requirements for its prefixes. In general, prefixes that imply less than one such as milli, micro, etc are not capitalized, while those that are greater than one are capitalized, with one exception. "K" is reserved for "Kilobucks", not kilohertz.

Other capitalization issues

"Coworkers" is correct, not "Co-Workers", which has two things wrong with it.

Whenever you use trademark words/product names, capitalize them exactly the way the company wants you to (ClearComm, AutoCAD, M/A-COM, etc.)

The abbreviations for ante meridian and post meridian are controversial. We prefer AM and PM, but in many publications P.M. and A.M. are used. Some newspapers use a.m. and p.m. Standardizing crap like this is why you company should consider publishing a style guide. AM is also used to describe the radio band, to add to the confusion.

Using plurals

One of these instruments are... or one of these instruments is...

What is the rule for this common problem???? The rule is to match the tense with the subject. In the above example, the subject is "one" (the phrase "of the instruments" is modifying information.)

One of these instruments IS broken.

If the sentence is talking about more than one thing, the subject is plural.

Many of these instruments ARE broken.

But wait, what if you are talking about none of the instruments? In this case, we suggest you rewrite it to say "all of the instruments are fine". But if you must, the correct approach is to treat "none" the same way you'd treat "all".

None of these instruments ARE broken.

If you aren't sure, take out the part that starts with "of", it should make it easier to see the correct answer.

While we're at it, the plural of email is e-mail, not e-mails!

Apostrophes, quotation marks and other punctuation

An apostrophe can either show possessive relationship ("the unit's size") or it can represent missing letters ("we'll measure it later"). Do not use an apostrophe to indicate more than one of something ("there are two unit's" is wrong).

Of course, there is an exception to every rule. In this case, it's "its". Use the apostrophe when you mean the contraction of "it is" but not when you are describing possession. For those of you who actually need help remembering this, and also enjoy poetry about punctuation, here is a poem by Paul Veverka. (Thanks, Paul, your pen is on the way!)

Its truth is clear for all to see
Possessive needs no apostrophe.
It's not a complicated fact
Apostrophize when you contract.

The "overuse" of quotes in a "sentence" gets really "stupid".

You don't need to add a period after common abbreviations such as Etc., OK?

Should you use one space after a period at the end of a sentence, or two? It comes down to personal preference, just be consistent. I'd like to use two, but this crappy software I am using right now won't even let me! If you really want to see an in-depth discussion of this obscure issue by people with either really skinny necks or wide butts, check out this gripping issue on Techwr-l (a listserv just for technical writers).

Know the difference between a hyphen, an em-dash and an en-dash? The hyphen is shortest, and goes between words that you want to blend together (form-factor for example). It also is used as the minus sign. The en-dash is used to represent the word "to" between words, such as New York-Chicago airfare. Em-dash is used between clauses in sentences, unexpected turn of thought.


Spell checkers are incredibly useful, but they don't catch every typographical mistake. Know the difference between "corespondent" and "correspondent", or you might get yourself in trouble. Your spell checker doesn't distinguish between these two words. Proofread your work, preferably with a large Starbucks coffee the day after you write it, or ask an intelligent coworker to review it for spelling and punctuation (if you have an intelligent coworker). If you aren't quite sure how to spell a particular word, that's what the dictionary is for!

"i before e except after c?" Thats what you were taught in school. Now that you are a receiver designer, you know it ain't that simple. If there is one word that makes you look like a microwave moron when you spell it wrong, it is receive. So don't write recieve on your resume if you are looking for a six-figure position.

Other countries sometimes use different spellings of English words. For example, center is correct in the United States; in England and Canada it is centre. Know where your document is going!


Some easy-to-follow rules:

Spell out numbers less than eleven, you lazy *$%! And numbers less than one should include zero to the left of the decimal point: 0.125 instead of .125. It's just easier to read.

Roman numerals have no place in modern engineering. Just don't use them.

Author : Unknown Editor