Why Becky Rebecca?

“Hi, what’s your name?”

This is one of the most common questions asked when meeting someone new. Thankfully, my name isn’t hard to pronounce, and I don’t have a nickname, but my name is unique (to say the least). When I get asked what my name is, the conversation usually goes something like this:

“Hi, what’s your name?”
“Is that short for Rebecca?”
“Actually, Rebecca is my middle name.”
“Wait, what? Then what’s your first name?”
“Your name is Becky Rebecca?”
“What were your parents thinking?”

The conversation that follows is some narrative about how my full name just flows off the tongue and my grandpa probably had something to do with it. While I’m glad I don’t have to repeat my name five times for people to remember my name, sometimes people have more fun with my name than I do. However, that’s not a bad thing.

Here’s why I love my name:

It represents me. My name is short and perky, much like me! It’s nearly impossible to sound mad while yelling “Becky Rebecca Banks.”

It’s simple. I don’t enjoy overly complex things. As a technical communicator, my job is to take complex things and make them easy-to-understand.

It’s easy to spell. I hate spelling errors more than any other grammatical error. I can understand why someone uses a comma wrong, but spelling is different. A word is spelled right or wrong, and the answer is a simple google search away.

Much like my name, this blog represents me, is simple, and is hopefully devoid of spelling errors. I’ve always loved the English language and its quirks; I hope you’ll find my thoughts and quirks interesting as well!

How to Detect a Scam Email

I always wondered if I would be able to detect a scam email. Some of them are quite scary because they look legitimate! Well, today I received one from “PayPal” and here are the clues that let me know it was fake.

Wrong Email Address
I have two email addresses: the one I made when I was 12, and my professional one. For services that I don’t like to attach my professional self to, I use the email address from when I was 12. However, for professional services, such as PayPal, I use my formal email address.

This scam was sent to my NON-PRIMARY account. This was the biggest clue. I don’t receive emails from PayPal on that account. I can completely understand if some people might get mixed up on what email address they are currently using, but make sure that the email received is on the same account you signed up for.

Long Sender List
The mail app on my iPhone always shows the sender information vertically instead of horizontally, like the gmail app does. I had to scroll through a long list of email addresses that this “legitimate” email was sent to. Legitimate PayPal emails are always sent to one person. If any email has a long list of people it was sent to, unless it’s a mass email from a trusted source, it’s probably spam.

This is probably my favorite clue. The scam has quite a few typos in the body of the text. Easy to miss while skimming, but I’m not someone who likes to skim. Just read the first paragraph to see what I’m talking about!

“We regularly check the activity of your paypal account. Recently, we found that some of the activities you are violating your agreement with us we have limited your account and can not offer the service for you.”

I have no idea what that second sentence is saying, and neither should you. Please be careful with scam emails! They are looking more and more legitimate, and I hope there isn’t someone out there losing their login information to gmail or PayPal because of a scam.

Final tip: If you are unsure whether or not the email is legitimate, log in through the service you are questioning. I logged into my PayPal account through PayPal after receiving this email, and I saw NO indication that I was violating any agreement. Please be safe and be careful!

Active vs Passive Voice

When should you use active voice and when should you use passive voice? I always thought it was easy, but after watching a presentation by a friend at the English Research Symposium at USU, I’m not so sure. (You can check out the abstract of that presentation here.) If you don’t know exactly what the difference between these two writing styles is, here it is.

Active Voice
Active voice is a sentence where the subject comes first, then the verb, and finally an object (if any). Writing in active voice is easy (if you have a subject), direct, and not wordy.

Subject + Verb + Object = Active Voice
I + ate + an apple. = Active Sentence

Passive Voice
Passive voice moves or completely removes the subject of the sentence. When you want to focus on the action rather than the subject, passive voice is a great way to do just that. However, when used excessively, it can become cumbersome to read.

Object + Verb + (Subject) = Passive Voice
An apple + was eaten + (by me). = Passive Sentence

What’s the Big Deal?
I always get frustrated when engineering students are told to only write in active voice or to only write in passive voice. Only after I watched the presentation did I realize why this was a problem. By removing the subject from a sentence, people can shift blame away from themselves.

It’s not obvious when people choose to use passive voice, but once you’re aware, you’ll see how people take advantage of passive voice everywhere. For example, take a sentence like this: This problem could have been avoided if this was done. Now, change it to active voice: This problem could have been avoided if I did this. While this is a vague example, I still believe this sentence shows how deliberately using passive voice can remove oneself from the problem.

While choosing passive voice can have this effect, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use passive voice. There are some sentences where the action is clearly more important and should be written using passive voice. This blog post was completed. (It doesn’t matter that I completed the post.)

Working with Engineers

I worked in the Engineering Writing Center (EWC) at Utah State University (USU). The EWC had just opened, and there was a bit of a learning curve, both for the Writing Consultants and the students. As someone who’s never written a lab report, I was suddenly helping students write and format lab reports, proposals, and other technical documents.

Not only did I not know what I was doing, the engineering students didn’t know what they were doing, either. Whenever I told someone I worked with engineers for writing assignments, there was almost always a chuckle and a comment that engineers aren’t the best writers and it’s great they have an extra resource to help them.

Here’s what I think: Engineers are surprisingly good writers!

The Reason Why
Engineers have it rough. Not only are they writing about complex systems, complete with an entirely separate vocabulary, but they have to focus on format and writing style, too. The hardest part for engineering students is that no style is consistent.

While working in the EWC, I heard that some professors only accepted active voice while others refused to see anything but passive voice. Do you know how hard it is to use active voice while emphasizing the action rather than the subject? It’s impossible! And yet, engineers are asked to do this and more according to the demands of their professors and jobs.

What I Saw
The engineering students I worked with were surprisingly receptive to the demands made of them from professors. While some students didn’t understand the differences between active voice and passive voice or why a comma should or shouldn’t be used, they were willing to learn.

I had a student come in with a proposal. He made more corrections than I did! From a previous appointment at the EWC, he learned from the Writing Consultant the differences between active and passive voice. Not only did he know what to look for, he knew how to change the sentence from passive to active voice.

I believe people should give engineers more credit on their writing abilities. As a Writing Consultant, I was not asked to understand the complex vocabulary or concepts engineering students were learning in their classes. I only had to focus on the grammar, content, and style of their documents. However, engineers are expected to understand something complex and write about it, too.

Engineering students don’t want to become engineers because they like to write, yet they write more than I do. I think they do a pretty good job at it, too.

The Subjective View of Commas

“Let’s eat, Grandpa!”

“Let’s eat Grandpa.”

These sentences are iconic examples of why commas are important. One, simple comma changed the entire meaning of the sentence. Sentences like the ones above are used to show just how important commas (and grammar rules in general) are. However, are all commas really necessary?

As someone who absolutely adores commas, I’ve realized the answer to this question is “No.” Not all commas are necessary. Commas are subjective, not objective. This phenomenon is what makes commas so hard to use.

Sentences with “that” or “which” show just how hard it is to figure out if a comma is necessary or not. The following sentences only have one minor difference. One uses “that,” and one uses “which.” Can you tell which one is correct?

Grab my wallet, which is in my purse.

Grab my wallet that is in my purse.

The answer to this question, surprisingly enough, is both sentences are correct depending on the context. In the first case, the writer assumes the reader already knows where the wallet is. “Which” signifies a non-essential element to a sentence, so the last part of the sentence, “which is in my purse,” can be taken out without removing meaning to the sentence.

In contrast, the writer of the second sentence assumes the reader doesn’t know where the wallet is. The word “that” shows the following information is essential for the reader. If the last part of the sentence, “that is in my purse,” is left out, readers might not have the information they need to accomplish their task.

Quick Guide to Essential and Non-Essential Phrases
A quick and easy way to decide if something is essential or not is to take the part of the sentence out. Does the sentence still make sense without the extra information? Then the phrase is non-essential and often uses a comma and “which” to show that it’s just extra information. Does the reader ask “so what?” or expects more information? Then the phrase is essential and “that” is used without a comma.

It’s important to remember as the author, you are the one who controls the commas. If you can justify why a phrase is essential or non-essential, then you are correct! It’s your writing, so own it! You control commas; commas don’t control you.