Tag Archives: concise writing

Does “Proper” English Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal asking the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London.

Kamm acknowledges errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation but states that if “everyone” is doing it, it’s OK. He says, “…that is what the language is.” To a certain extent, I agree. All languages change because of common usage. In Shakespeare’s day, the word “girl” could refer to a young child, either female or male. That meaning no longer applies, strictly because of common usage. And look at the evolution of the word “gay” in the last 50 years.

But Kamm has no problem with “between you and I.” I do. He would call my attitude snobbish and say I am a pedant. Yet isn’t he being pedantic when stating his views on language?

Some rules of English language are holdovers from Latin syntax. That is why ending sentences with prepositions is still considered a no-no by many. I have no problem with saying or writing, “Who was the person I saw you with?” The alternative is to say, “With whom was that person I saw you?” I doubt many will go for that stuffy option. Splitting infinitives is another so-called error, yet the world’s most famous split infinitive, “to boldly go,” poses no problem. If it sounds all right and makes sense, I am fine with splitting infinitives (the “to —” form of verbs).

We all use different forms of English for different occasions. A formal letter of complaint, a quick email to a friend, a letter to your ancient great-aunt—all will contain a different style of English. If your work involves a field that uses particular lingo, by all means use it among your colleagues. But don’t let that language spill out into the wider world; most people outside your area won’t understand what you mean. And clear communication is the purpose of language, isn’t it? Also realize that spoken English is rarely held to the same standards as is written English. Sometimes the result can be painful to the ears, but casual speech usually seems normal and often even entertaining.

Here’s a big question: do people judge us by the way we use English? I fear they do. It might not be fair, and it is only one way we are judged daily: by our speech and writing, by our clothing, by our hair and makeup, by the car we drive, by our taste in music and movies—the list is endless. Not fair, but endless.

I have two graduate degrees in English. One class required a very complicated and difficult study of transformational grammar (don’t ask), but it did give me the knowledge and confidence to devote over 20 years to teaching business writing seminars in the corporate world. If “proper” English doesn’t matter, why was I ever hired?

I think the dumbing down of language standards fits in with today’s grade inflation and trophies for everyone on the sports team. In the 1970s, an “anything goes” educational model arose to make the student feel good at all costs. A young cousin of mine learned to read in school by using phonetic books; she also learned to write by using phonetic spelling. At some point in later elementary school she had to dich fonetik speling and lurn the mor convenshunl wun. Perhaps some of you were taught the same way.

Daily we are faced with language distortion in politics and advertising. (I urge you to read George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it online. Well worth your time.)

Since the purpose of language is communication, being precise is of great importance. The rules we learn throughout our lives, particularly in classes, ensure the greatest clarity; we encounter fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

My questions to you are the following: is it racist or classist to expect people to write using the standards of “proper” English? If people don’t use standard English, will they be considered less intelligent? Will use of substandard English hold people back?

I would love to get your feedback on this topic.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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Superfluous Words

 

 

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© Judi Birnberg

I’ve taken the following list from Maxwell Nurnberg’s Questions You Always Wanted to Ask About English*

* but were afraid to raise your hand.

It’s good to be concise when we write; see if you can spot the redundancies in these sentences:

  1. If all of us cooperate together, we’ll get somewhere.
  2. It was the general consensus of opinion that war was inevitable.
  3. He shook his fist as he rose up to speak.
  4. He was guilty of a false misstatement.
  5. He told ties, socks, shirts, and etc.
  6. He must now realize the fact that we are no longer able to help him.
  7. In my opinion, I think the situation has grown worse.
  8. He carefully examined each and every entry.
  9. He was miraculously restored back to health.
  10. His score for 18 holes never exceeded more than 75.

(Mr. Nurnberg certainly could have thrown a few examples in using females.—JB)

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Trite Expressions

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TRITE—Overused, worn out, lacking in originality

Just about anything can be trite: art, music, dance, food (think kale salads). But this blog is concerned with language, so that’s what we’ll focus on today. Read through these trite expressions and then vow to avoid them whenever possible. It will always be possible; just think of straightforward alternatives. You can do it.

  • No sooner said than done
  • By hook or by crook
  • Busy as a bee
  • A bolt from the blue
  • Few and far between
  • In this day and age
  • Words fail me
  • By leaps and bounds
  • Better late than never
  • A good time was had by all
  • Breathed a sigh of relief
  • From the ridiculous to the sublime
  • It’s a small world
  • Life and limb
  • Sticks out like a sore thumb
  • To all intents and purposes
  • In the final analysis

In the final analysis, I hope you can see why it’s better to avoid these expressions.

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Redundancies: Don’t Say It Again, Sam

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VIN=Vehicle Identification Number, so just use VIN, not VIN number.
Same idea with PIN.
ATM machine? ATM says it all.
HIV virus? The V tells us it’s a virus.
No need to say something is blue in color, square in shape, absolutely complete, a total disaster or a true fact.
Unless it’s by John Phillip Sousa, no need to say the month of March.
Nine a.m. in the morning? Choose a.m. or morning, not both.

This is my final conclusion.

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Beside or Besides?

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When you’re angry or frustrated, are you beside yourself or besides yourself? Here’s the difference:

BESIDES means in addition to.
Besides me, only three people showed up at the meeting.

BESIDE means next to, alongside.
At the meeting, I sat beside a woman I had never met before.

However, the expression beside myself (with frustration, for example) strikes me as odd. Obviously, it’s idiomatic; you can’t physically get next to yourself, no matter how hard you try. But if you are sufficiently frustrated, you might feel as if you have been torn into two people. I’m just guessing here.

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Simplifying Legalese

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Here is the writing on a T-shirt I bought for my husband, a lawyer. It’s labeled “The Layman’s Glossary of Legal Terms”:

ACQUIT: To wimp out
APPELLATE: Hamster food
ARRAIGN: Stormy weather
ATTORNEY: Major sporting event
BAR ASSOCIATION: Drinking buddies
BONA FIDE: Dog treat
CRIMINAL LAWYER: Redundant
COURT OF APPEALS: Justice for bananas
CRIME OF PASSION: Sloppy kisses
DEBTOR: Less alive
DECEIT: A place to sit down
DISCOVERY: Cable TV channel
EXTRADITION: More math homework
GRACE PERIOD: Just before the meal
HUNG JURY: Overreaction to verdict
IN TOTO: Where Dorothy places trust
INNOCENCE: Fragrant when burned
LEGAL BRIEFS: Always boxers
LEGAL SECRETARY: Old enough to party
LIEN: Not overweight
MIRANDA RULE: Wear fruit on head
ORDER IN THE COURT: A call for takeout
PRO BONO: Cher before the divorce
ROE V. WADE: Tough choice at river
SUPREME COURT: Where Diana Ross plays tennis
TRIAL DATE: More fun than dinner and a movie

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How Does This Issue Impact You?

So many issues to contemplate and solve. Issue after issue. Issues are issuing forth from radio, television and every segment of media all day and all night. We are bombarded with issues.

We are constantly being asked how these issues impact us. So many impacts. Impacts here, impacts there, impacts, impacts everywhere.

What I want to know is what happened to problems affecting people. I’m guessing impact has replaced affect, at least in writing, because so many people are unsure whether to use affect or effect.

Either of those can be used instead of impact:

  1. How does this problem affect you? (Affect is a verb.)
  2. What will be the effect of this problem? (Effect is a noun.)

It’s true that affect can be a noun: The patient had a flat affect (no facial expression).

Effect can also be a verb: Every new president hopes to effect changes (meaning bring about). 

However, you can see how rarely each of those words is used in those ways. Try memorizing the overwhelmingly more common uses of affect and effect (see sentences 1 and 2 above) and take them out for a spin every now and then. Don’t get stuck in the Issue and Impact Rut.

 

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Can You Do These Things?

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Glued to the TV

Can you do your level best? Can you throw a fit? How about throwing someone under the bus? Or throwing a birthday party? Can you crack a smile, float a trial balloon, pose a question, bear the brunt, beat a hasty retreat, grab a nap, or cause someone’s words to fall on deaf ears? Are you glued to the conventions? Can you drive a hard bargain and nail down an argument?

If you can do these acts, it might be better if you didn’t. They’re all clichés, and everyone knows clichés should be avoided like the plague.

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More Spring Cleaning

© Judi Birnberg Time to Clean

© Judi Birnberg
Time to Clean

Last week I suggested you do some spring cleaning and rid your writing of redundant jargon and clichés. I heard from several of you who added additional suggestions, such as 7 a.m. Monday morning and the month of March. (I used to tell my classes, if it wasn’t by John Phillip Sousa it had to be the month.)

Jeff Wright, a very smart man I was lucky enough to have in one of my seminars, sent me a list he has compiled of his, ahem, favorites. With thanks to Jeff, I present the following:

Completely unique
Ask a question
Emergency situation
Cameo appearance
Filled to capacity
Tough dilemma
Close proximity
Shower activity
Storm system
False pretense
Added bonus
Very critical
Kneel down
Tuna fish
Heat up

I can also add these:

Any qualifier with unique (very, most, really, truly)
True fact
Surrounded on all sides
Exactly identical
New innovation
Disappear from view
Repeat again
Final conclusion
Purple in color
Completely free
Circled around

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A Common Agreement Problem

© Judi Birnberg

© Judi Birnberg

How often have you seen or heard the following construction?

There’s three reasons to buy your tickets early.

Omit the contraction and you will see you are saying There is three reasons to buy your tickets early. There is three?

To restore agreement to your sentence, you need to write There are three reasons…. Making that into a contraction, however, is awkward: There’re three reasons…. Ick.

Starting sentences with There is or There are (or Here is or Here are) is a weak construction. Better to write Buy your tickets early for three reasons—and then list them.

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Fillers

Speakers of all languages pepper their listeners with fillers, those sounds and words that take up little space and allow the speakers to figure out where they’re going. Here are some language-specific fillers:

Britain— spelled er (but pronounced uh)
France—euh
Israel (Hebrew speakers)—ehhh
Holland—uh and um
Germanyah and ahm
Serbia and Croatia—ovay
Turkey—mmmm
Sweden—eh, ah, aaah, m, mm, hmm, ooh, a and oh (very creative, no?)
Norway—e, eh, m, hm

Sometimes fillers are more than just a sound; they are complete words:

English speakerswell, you know, I mean, so
Turkey—shey, shey shey, which means thing
Mandarin Chinese—neige, meaning that
Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong—tsik hai, which means equal
Wichita Indian—kaakiri, meaning something

It seems that um is ubiquitous, found in every language.
My information comes from, um, the book titled Um, written by, um, Michael Erard.

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Book Recommendation: Bird by Bird

If you’re not familiar with the author Anne Lamott, I am here to tell you that I love her writing. She is serious and hilarious simultaneously, not an easy trick to pull off. Of all her books, I love Bird by Bird the most. The subtitle is Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

This is the best book on writing I know. If you’ve ever considered writing for publication or enjoy writing for your own pleasure, this is the book for you. Lamott knows all the obstacles and excuses you are carrying around in your head, and she dispenses with them in her own inimitable manner. At the same time, the book is philosophical—but not in a ponderous, off-putting way. Again, you will laugh.

If you’re curious about the title, when Lamott was a child her younger brother had a book report on birds due the next day and was agonizing about getting it written. Their father, who was himself a writer, patted his son on the head and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Not a bad approach for a book report or for any other task before you that seems formidable. Bird by bird.

© Judi Birnberg

© Judi Birnberg

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Out of Order?

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One of the most common phrases I see and hear is “in order to”:

• In order to vote, you have to be registered by a stated date.
• We will take a poll in order to see who the two most popular candidates are.
• We will book our trip next Tuesday in order to get the best airfare.

In all those sentences, the words “in order” are extraneous; they add no information. They are saying the equivalent of “so that,” but that idea is implied by the word “to” alone. When words don’t do any work, chop them out.

You probably should proofread several times: once for obvious typos and grammatical errors, again for punctuation problems, and one more time to make certain your writing is as clear and concise as possible. If you proofread out loud (barely audibly is fine) and very slowly, you will catch many errors you won’t find when you read silently and at your usual speed. Unless we slow down and speak out, we all tend to see what we think we wrote, not what we actually wrote.

People used to think proofreading backwards was helpful; I do not recommend this technique. It will pick up typos, but since you are not understanding the meaning of your writing, you will miss just about everything else.

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Email Reminders

1. Avoid bold, CAPS and italics to give emphasis; they can be distracting. Let your words carry your meaning.

2. Use BCC: when sending to a group; you don’t want to expose others’ email addresses to strangers. By using BCC: you also avoid the likelihood that one of the recipients will click Reply All rather than responding only to you. We all get far too much email as it is.

3. Begin your email with a greeting and end with a closing and your name. Otherwise, your email may be perceived as being rude and clipped.

4. Don’t send a large attachment without first checking with the recipient to see when the best time to send it would be.

5. Avoid assuming your readers know the details of what you are writing about. If they knew, you’d have no need to write.

6. Use your spell- and grammar-check programs, and then proofread to make sure you didn’t leave words out. Spellcheck programs will accept everything you write that is a word, so if you wrote “and” when you meant “any,” only you can fix that.

7. Before writing because you think you haven’t received an expected response, check your Spam folder.

8. Make your Subject line clear and appropriate. Change it when the email discussion shifts.

9. Remember to thank people for any help you receive. Use “please” when making a request.

10. Writing in all caps is shouting. Writing in all lowercase is annoying.

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The —Ize Have It

I got an email today from Williams-Sonoma advertising a new attachment for the Kitchen Aid mixer. It was described as a “Handy multitasker that peels, cores, slices and spiralizes in seconds.” I must confess, I am not a spiralizer. I have made spirals, created spirals, but can’t remember the last time I spiralized anything.

To my eye and ear, many —ize verbs are unnecessary. Can’t we create incentives rather than incentivize? Prioritize? Set priorities. Have you ever bought a utilized car?

However, many verbs ending in —ize are so common that I can’t argue with their use: hospitalize, hypnotize, lionize, legalize, minimize, maximize, idealize, and personalize—among many others.

Stepping off my soapbox, I wonder if you can think of any time utilize conveys any meaning that use doesn’t. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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Quotations From William Zinsser on Writing

I wrote about the death of William Zinsser last week and would now like to include a few quotations from his wonderful book, On Writing Well.

“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

“Clear thinking becomes clear writing. One can’t exist without the other.”

“Few people realize how badly they write…. The point is that you have to strip down your writing before you can build it back up.”

“Simplify, simplify.”

Zinsser worked for a newspaper, wrote for prominent magazines, taught in the English Department at Yale, and authored many books. As a writer and teacher, he made an indelible mark. I hope he was happy about that fact; he deserved to be. Do I recommend this book? Is the pope…?

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Cliché Finder

Cliche Finder is a website (www.westegg.com) that has lists of random clichés. Here’s one I stumbled on just now. See if any of these sayings are near and dear to your heart (and there’s another cliché for you):

different strokes for different folks
to have and to hold
forewarned is forearmed
from A to Z
If you’re the last one to leave,turn out the lights.
warms the cockles of your heart (Did you know your heart had cockles?)
find yourself in a hole
turn turtle
no sweat
didn’t like the color of his money

What’s so wrong with clichés? The first time we heard any of them, we might well have thought, “Isn’t that clever!” But by the 20th time, they had become old hat and made us green around the gills because they were hoary with age, well past their pull-by date.

I think I’ve tortured you with enough clichés for one day. As William Safire, the late word maven once wrote, “Avoid clichés like the plague.”

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So This is At the Top of My Pet Peeve List

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I blogged about this topic once before, but it has become ubiquitous and is grating on my last synapse. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, look again at the subject line or listen to any interview on NPR: Why are people starting sentences with “So” when the word adds no meaning?

I’m not referring to the use of “so” as a conjunction, as in, “Elrod dyed his hair Raggedy Andy red so he would stand out in a crowd.” I don’t mean “so” used as a synonym for “therefore” or “as a result”: “Aaron overate all day; so naturally he wasn’t hungry at dinner time.”

I mean the use of “so” as a worthless filler, most frequently used at the beginning of an answer to a question:

Q. “How many people do you think will want to buy the new Apple iWatch?”
A. “So it’s hard to predict because many people have given up wearing watches and just use their tablets and phones to see what time it is.”

So I think “Well” as an introduction (that again carries no meaning and may at best buy thinking time before answering) has been supplanted by “So.” So notice today how many times you hear people say and write “So” at the beginning of sentences. So don’t be like me and snarkily say “So” back at them every time you hear or see it. So there.

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What Punctuation Can Tell Us

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A recent article in the New York Times interested me. It discussed ways people are using punctuation in emails, tweets and texts to convey emotion and messages not expressed in words. Let me know if you agree with the author’s conclusions.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/style/when-your-punctuation-says-it-all.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share

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My Favorite Kind of Grammatical Mistake

How can you not love misplaced modifiers? Often, they are kneewhackingly funny. I’m currently reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and came across this sentence last night:

[Don] Valentine arrived at the Jobses’ garage in a Mercedes wearing a blue suit, button-down shirt, and rep tie.”

I’ve never bought a Mercedes, so I’m not familiar with the options. Perhaps you can buy an entire outfit for your new car. A blue suit would look spiffy against a metallic gray Mercedes body. I’m left wondering what kind of shoes the car had on.

A modifier is nothing more than a word or a group of words that gives information about another part of the sentence. Here’s the rule with modifiers: Put it next to the word or word it’s giving information about. In this case, we intuitively know that Don Valentine was wearing the clothes described. All Isaacson needed to do was begin the sentence, “Don Valentine, wearing a blue suit, button-down shirt, and rep tie, arrived at the Jobses’ garage in a Mercedes.”

Steve Jobs is a fascinating description of an extremely complex person. All it would have taken to avoid this error was proofreading and careful editing. I often wonder if editors no longer exist at publishing houses.

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Before You Click “Send”

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Most of us have had the horrible experience of discovering one nanosecond after clicking “Send” that we have sent that email to the wrong person. Here is a checklist to help you avoid that and other problems:

1. To make your email sound more human, include a greeting and closing. These can be casual or more formal, depending on the situation.

2. Make sure all names are spelled correctly. You don’t like to see your name mangled; neither does anyone else.

3. Don’t forget to add “please” and “thank you.” These are positive words people like to see.

4. Always use spellcheck, and then always proofread out loud (quietly and slowly) to pick up mistakes spellcheck doesn’t recognize (e.g., “ant” when you meant “any”).

5. Don’t overpunctuate!!!! You want to come across as a professional.

6. Avoid using “Reply All.” We all get too many emails, and “Reply All” clutters up mailboxes with issues that often don’t pertain to the recipient. Be selective in sending responses.

7. If the subject is emotionally charged, after you write your reply do not send it immediately. Do something else. Later, reread your answer and make certain it is responsive to the email you received. If you are satisfied that your answer is appropriate, go ahead and send it. If you’re not sure, either wait awhile longer or else rewrite your response.

8. The last step before sending is to check the TO: field to be certain your email is going only to those you want to see it.

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What’s the Official Name for This?

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You may call this a pound sign, a number sign, or a hashtag. In fact, the official name for this is an “octothorpe.” Who knew, right? The sign came into common use around 1968, when Bell Labs, once part of AT&T, used the symbol on its touch-tone phones.

The name octothorpe refers to the eight points of the symbol. The “thorpe” part is less clear: “thorp” (no final e) in Old English meant “village,” so perhaps the eight lines surround areas that may have been seen as little villages around a central square.

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Parallelism

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When you write items in a series, you want to use the same grammatical form for each item. Otherwise, your writing will be grating both on the eye and in the ear. Here are some sentences that are not parallel. Fix them; this should be easy for you. I’ll put the correct answers below.

1. To be a good soccer player you need to have strategy, skill and be agile.

2. My doctor told me to take the proverbial two aspirin and that I should call her in the morning.

3. To end a school paper, you can give a summary of the main points, posit a question or you could quote someone.

4. My English teacher gives us three hours of homework every night and we’re also expected to write a five-page essay every weekend.

5. Spoiled as a child, Alex grew up to be well groomed, talented and an obnoxious person.

Answers:

1. strategy, skill and agility

2. take two aspirin and call her in the morning

3. give a summary, posit a question or use a quotation

4. three hours of homework every night and a five-page essay each weekend

5. well groomed, talented and obnoxious

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Jargon

imagesJargon is a special kind of cliché, specific to a particular profession. Every profession has words understood by members of that group, and I don’t have too much of a problem when that language is confined within the group. At times it may even help colleagues to communicate with each other, although clear, simple English is fully up to the task.

I object, however, when that jargon is used to pollute the rest of the world. It may be largely incomprehensible to many people and is a way to keep outsiders out of the anointed inner circle.

I will pick on lawyers now, just because I am most familiar with the language of their profession. Why is it necessary to use jargon such as the following?

Enclosed herein please find; as per our previous conversation; to wit; aforementioned; the favor of a reply is requested, ad nauseum. It would be no less professional and far more comprehensible to write Here is; as we discussed; specifically; already cited; please respond.

People who use jargon is general conversation or writing think they are being professional. In fact, they come across as pompous, bureaucratic and somewhat foolish. At least that’s my take on this topic.

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A Very Common Redundancy

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“Where’s the shoe department at?”
“Did she tell you where the meeting is at?”
“How can I find where my evaluation is at?”

When you use “where” in a sentence, you are referring to location. Therefore, sticking an “at” into the sentence is redundant. All you need is:

“Where is the shoe department?”
“Did she tell you where the meeting is?”
“Where can I find my evaluation?”

I’m wishing for just one day when I hear the “at” tag fewer than 10 times. Is that asking too much?

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What Some People Do to the English Language!

In case you’ve been thinking you aren’t particularly eloquent, read the following quotations. You’ll recover your self-confidence immediately. Thanks to my friend Jill J. for sending me these howlers.
(On September 17, 1994, Alabama’s Heather Whitestone was selected as Miss America 1995.)Question: If you could live forever, would you and why?
Answer: “I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever.”
–Miss Alabama in the 1994 Miss  USA contest.
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“Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.”
–Mariah Carey
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“Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life,”
— Brooke Shields, during an interview to become spokesperson for a Federal anti-smoking campaign
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“I’ve never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body.”
–Winston Bennett,  University   of  Kentucky   basketball forward.
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“Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”
–Mayor Marion Barry,  Washington, DC
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“That lowdown scoundrel deserves to be kicked to death by a jackass, and I’m just the one to do it.”
–A Congressional candidate in  Texas
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“Half this game is ninety percent mental.”
–Philadelphia Phillies manager Danny Ozark
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“It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.”
–Al Gore, Vice President
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“I love  California. I practically grew up in Phoenix.”
— Dan Quayle
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“We’ve got to pause and ask ourselves: How much clean air do we need?”
–Lee Iacocca
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“The word “genius” isn’t applicable in football. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.”
–Joe Theisman, NFL football quarterback and sports analyst.
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“We don’t necessarily discriminate. We simply exclude certain types of people.”
— Colonel Gerald Wellman, ROTC Instructor.
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“Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 1992 because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.”
–Department of Social Services, Greenville , South Carolina
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“Traditionally, most of Australia’s imports come from overseas.”
–Keppel Enderbery
,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,”If somebody has a bad heart, they can plug this jack in at night as they go to bed and it will monitor their heart throughout the night. And the next morning, when they wake up dead, there’ll be a record.”
–Mark S. Fowler, FCC Chairman

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Common Sense Rules for Emails

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You have received enough emails in your time to make you aware of certain behaviors that annoy or even anger you. Here are a few reminders to keep your recipients happy:

1. DON’T WRITE IT ALL CAPS. They are hard to read and your readers will think you are shouting.

2. all lower case isn’t any better. it looks immature and is likewise annoying to read. I hope you enjoy e.e. cummings’  poetry, but please don’t emulate his style; it belongs to him.

3. Don’t leave the subject line blank. If you need to write only a few words, you can put the entire message in the subject line and, in parentheses afterward, add (end) or (EOM). For example, Meeting tomorrow at 10:00 (end).

4. If you’re sending the same email to several people, you’ll probably want to use Bcc: in the address line for each person. Otherwise, you are revealing everyone’s email address to everyone else on the list, and it might not be your place to do that. Use your discretion.

5. If you receive information from another person, do not copy all or part of that when you write to others—unless you have received permission from the original writer to do so.

6. Don’t use a background color or colored fonts in your emails. They make it harder to read, and if you are responding, those colors may go into your email. It’s annoying all around.

7. If you write an angry email, do not send it. At least don’t send it immediately. Sleep on it. You may decide not to send it at all, or you may want to tone it down. Don’t demean yourself.

If you have other suggestions, I’d love to see them. We can all learn from each other. Thanks!

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How Not to Write

Last week I came across this article (partially reprinted here) in the New York Times. Immediately, I knew I was going to use it as an example of what not to do.

To begin, read the first paragraph and tell me you are not confused. The reporter included so much information that by the time you get to the topic, you forget what you had just read.

The second paragraph clearly tells what happened. With a few simple revisions, that should have been the lead.

 

In Mexico, an Embattled Governor Resigns

By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD OCT. 23, 2014

MEXICO CITY — The governor of the southern Mexico state where 43 college students have gone missing in a case that the authorities say has exposed the deep ties among local politicians, the police and organized crime stepped down on Thursday under pressure from his own party.

The governor, Ángel Aguirre of Guerrero State, agreed to leave his post after leaders of his party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, publicly said they would otherwise try to push him out in order to quell growing civil unrest in the state.

Here’s what I would have written:

The governor of Guerrero State, Mexico, Ángel Aguirre, agreed to leave his post after leaders of his party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, publicly said they would otherwise try to push him out in order to quell growing civil unrest in the state.

Recently, 43 college students have gone missing in a case that the authorities say has exposed the deep ties among local politicians, the police and organized crime.

The article then continues, but I didn’t want to read any more, primarily because of the hodge podge of information the reporter threw at me in the first paragraph.

I have noticed that, particularly in newspapers, you have an idea what an article is going to be about by reading the title; however, until you get to the meat of the article, you have to wade through a great deal of background detail. At times the crucial information is located many paragraphs later on a following page.

Take a lesson from this article when you are writing—whether for pleasure or work. Start with the most important information and then fill in the supporting details. Otherwise, you are seriously risking losing your readers.

 

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Simplistic or Simple?

Recently, I’ve heard people use “simplistic” when they meant “simple.” I searched my blog and found this post from a year ago and think it’s worth repeating.

I have written about the difference between long and lengthy and how the latter has a negative connotation, implying something is going on longer than it needs to. A long speech may be hard to listen to, but a lengthy one may verge on torture.  Most people use lengthy (or God forbid, lengthly) because they think it sounds more professional.  It isn’t.

The same can be said about simplistic.  It is not a fancy-schmancy way to say simple.  It means something that is overly simple, and therefore inadequate.  Roger’s simplistic explanation left the audience with more questions than answers.

Don’t write (or talk) to impress.  Your goal is to be clear and understood.  Isn’t that what you want from others’ communications?

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Cut It Out

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Here are some commonly used (not utilized!) words you can eliminate in almost every case:

Event: A sales event is a sale.

Facilities: Manufacturing facilities are plants or factories.

Conditions: Stormy weather conditions are storms.

Activity: Rainfall activity is rain.

Basis: Working on a volunteer basis is volunteering.

Operation: A cleanup operation is cleaning up.

You can see these words add no meaning, carry no weight. After you finish writing, go to your Find function and put in these clichéd words. Read each sentence where you find them and see if you can’t eliminate the deadwood. In almost every case you’ll be able to cut it out.

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About About

For some reason, about is rarely seen in business writing.  Is it thought to be too common, too ordinary?  I have no idea why it is shunned, but I’m encouraging you to rediscover its charms.

Here are the words you love to use in about’s place:

Regarding

With regard to  (not with regards to; regards are what you give to

Broadway)

With respect to, In respect to

Concerning

As to

Apropos of

In reference to

These all tend to sound extremely formal.  Most of your business writing should be in a conversational voice, the way you would talk to someone sitting across your desk from you.  Don’t be afraid to sound human.  Your writing will be clear, and people will enjoy reading what you write.

 

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So What?

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I think I may have ranted about this fairly recently, but I’d like you to consciously listen to people around you today or—if you can stomach it—this week and become aware of how many sentences are being started with the word “So.”

I am now seeing this fairly often in writing as well, which makes me not happy at all. “So” legitimately means “as a result”: “Benjamin failed his driving test twice, so he is very nervous he won’t pass on his final chance to take it again.”

That, however, is not how the word is flooding discourse these days. It’s being used as the very casual, conversational beginning of sentences:

So did I tell you about the new manager in Human Resources?

So a new series is starting on HBO tonight.

So I’m wondering when my niece is going to finish college.

So the new plan is to limit department meetings to 30 minutes.

In each of those sentences, the word does no work. You can erase it and no meaning is lost, no confusion ensues. Pay attention in the next few days. Good chance you even will catch yourself saying “So” when it is extraneous. If it carried meaning, I would have no problem with it. However, it’s just deadwood. Chop it out.

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Choose One

Since “however” and “but” both indicate a shift in the direction of your writing, don’t use them together, as in this example: But Jane, however, decided to move to Houston. Choose one: But Jane decided to move to Houston or However, Jane decided to move to Houston.

Similarly, I often hear people say, “And plus.” Again, choose one, since they both are words adding information.

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Journalism Clichés

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Carlos Lozada at the Washington Post listed clichés frequently seen in the media, clichés he would like to abolish. Here is a portion of the phrases he finds annoying and ready for destruction. Do you agree?

Christmas came early for [someone]

Chock full (“full” is just fine by itself)

Last-ditch effort (unless ditch-digging is involved)

Midwife (as a verb, unless involving childbirth)

Cue the [something]

Call it [something]

Pity the poor [something]

It’s the [something], stupid

Imagine (as the first word in your lede)

Time will tell if [something]

Palpable sense of relief (unless you can truly touch it)

Sigh of relief

Plenty of blame to go around

Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)

Turned a blind eye

I’m voting with Lozada.

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Do You Move In to or Move Into?

Here’s a question a reader posed. It is worth some thought:

A person is moving from one apartment to another. Would you say she is moving into the new apartment or moving in to it?

I vote for the first option. She is moving all her belongings inside the new digs; therefore, she is moving into it.

If you say she is moving in to that apartment, you are thinking of the verb as “moving in.” But that “in” is extraneous. She’s moving. You could save space and trees (OK, a tiny tree) by simply stating she is moving to her new apartment.

Feel free to disagree.

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Syntax and Lexicon

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No, not SIN TAX; that’s an entirely different matter. I’m sure you hear the word “syntax” used (perhaps not as frequently as the homonym), but you might not be certain of its meaning.

SYNTAX means the way words are put together to form grammatical, comprehensible sentences. People who garble their meanings are said to speak and write using deficient syntax. Think of Sarah Palin and George W. Bush—they aren’t guilty all the time but often enough to be notorious for their use of the English language. The derivation of “syntax” is from Greek to Latin to French.

LEXICON refers to the vocabulary used by a person, by a language or by a branch of study, e.g., the lexicon of the Basque people of Catalonia. The derivation of “lexicon” is from Greek to Latin.

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Which Pronoun Would You Choose?

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I am often asked which pronoun is correct a sentence like this:

1. I appreciate you helping me.

2. I appreciate your helping me.

No one’s brain is going to explode if you choose the wrong pronoun, but “your,” a possessive pronoun, is definitely preferred.

How about this one?

1. Daniel looks forward to your arrival.

2. Daniel looks forward to you arrival.

That was easy, wasn’t it? You’d never write “you arrival” because “arrival” is a noun, and you know you need an adjective to modify it. When you use a pronoun that acts as an adjective to modify a noun, you’ll always need a possessive pronoun, in this case “your.”

That’s all for today, folks.

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Two Overused Suffixes

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In an effort to stem the tide of clichés barraging us daily, I offer two for your extinction:

—MAGEDDON and —POCALYPSE

Must every negative event have one of these stuck to its rear end? When the notorious 405 freeway in Los Angeles was first shut down for widening, newspaper and broadcast reports feared the worst and dubbed it an impending “Carmageddon” or a “Carpocalypse.” It didn’t happen then nor on subsequent shutdowns. People found other routes, and no disaster ensued. The East Coast has recently been under siege for “Snowmageddons” and “Stormpocalypses” (beware: another one is coming this week!), and California has a severe “Droughtmageddon.” Yes, the lack of rainfall is truly worrisome, but “severe and prolonged drought” makes the point.

And don’t forget —GATE, a legacy of Watergate in the 1970s. On second thought, do forget it.

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George Carlin on “Soft Language”

imagesDuring the many years I gave corporate writing seminars, I showed an excerpt about the degradation of the English language from one of George Carlin’s shows. My goal was to get participants to think about the words they used, to eliminate the rampant jargon and to say what they meant as clearly and concisely as possible.

Carlin gave many examples. He began by saying, “Sometime in my life, I wasn’t notified about this, toilet paper became bathroom tissue. Sneakers became running shoes. False teeth became dental appliances. Medicine became medication. Information became Directory Assistance. The dump became the landfill. Car crashes became automobile accidents. Partly cloudy became partly sunny. Motels became motor lodges…and constipation became occasional irregularity.”

He said, “Look at him…. He’s 90 years young,” demonstrating our fear of death in this country. He observed that “People no longer die: they pass away or expire, like a magazine subscription. People don’t say they’re getting old; they say they’re getting older, as if it will last a little longer.”

He concluded his rant by stating, “I’m telling you, some of this language makes me want to vomit. Well, maybe not vomit. It makes me want to engage in an involuntary personal protein spill.”

George Carlin was unique, the thinking person’s comedian. I may never forgive him for expiring.

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Why I Post Writing Tips

English: Education.

English: Education. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been sending out writing tips for about 15 years. They end up going to thousands of people, primarily people who work in companies for which I gave business writing seminars. Do you ever stop to wonder why I send these tips out, tips that I now also post in my blog?  Because I want you to succeed.I cannot overemphasize how important it is to be able to write well.  By “well,” I mean writing clearly, concisely, precisely and confidently:

• Writing so your readers don’t have to guess what you mean

• Writing that invites your readers in

 • Writing that makes your readers feel good when they see they have received an email, letter or report from     you

• Writing your readers won’t delete before they even read it when they see who wrote the document

If you are looking for a job, your résumé is your calling card. Do you have any idea how many résumés are deleted at the first typo?  If a résumé has no typos but is badly organized or if it looks sloppy on the page, you can kiss that job goodbye.

If you have a job, your writing skills are no doubt part of your performance evaluation. Who will be promoted, a person whose writing is careless, ungrammatical, disorganized? Or will it be the person whose writing possesses the opposite of those characteristics? (Obviously, those are rhetorical questions.)

 

What will help your writing?  My tips can’t do it all. How I wish it were that simple. I do suggest you make a folder and save them for future reference, however.

The best thing you can do to improve your writing is to read, read, read. Find an author you like—it doesn’t have to be a so-called highbrow author—and just make yourself read. If you like a TV series, get the book it was based on. You’ll find it in iTunes or Amazon.

One other tip I used with my college students is a one-month experiment: write one page a day for 30 days. If you start on the 20th of the month, do this every day until the next 20th rolls around. Just write those single pages on any topic you want (each page can be a different subject), print them out, and put them in the order of oldest first.  After doing this for a month, start with the first page you wrote and read through them.  Finally, read the first page and then the most recent one you wrote. I guarantee you will see improvement you didn’t think would be possible.  No one read these for you. No one critiqued them. The improvement came from the simple act of writing.  Magic!

If you do this, I would love to hear from you at the end of your month. Remember, just one page a day. That is only about 250 words. No biggie!

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Redundancies

Do you catch yourself saying or writing any of the following? Be aware they are redundancies.  Cut out the deadwood.

• Future plans

• Positive benefit

• Exact same

• End result

• Added bonus

• PIN number

• Repeat again

• Very/S0/Extremely Unique

• Free gift

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Thoughts About Adverbs

Hopefully, actually, basically, amazingly, fundamentally, surprisingly, significantly, essentially—these are all common ways to begin a sentence, and you can throw them out. My favorite story about “actually” is from a friend whose young granddaughter started many sentences with that word.  Her grandmother asked her what “actually” meant, and Nicole thought about it and finally answered, “Actually, I don’t know.”

Adverbs can be redundant. There is no need for a band to blare loudly. Is there any other way to blare?  Do you clench your teeth tightly?  Laugh happily?  Weep sadly?  Are you totally amazed?  Can you be partially amazed?  Isn’t that like being partially pregnant?

When you use an adverb, determine whether it is doing any work. Does it contribute to the meaning of your sentence? If not, cut it out. It’s deadwood.

Adverbs (novel)

Adverbs (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Words to Eliminate

“The dealership is holding a sales event over Memorial Day weekend.”

“Yesterday’s rain event in Oklahoma caused widespread flooding. However, tomorrow should bring only minimal shower activity.”

“The defense attorney cited acts of an inflammatory nature.”

“The drought condition has many farmers concerned.”

“The police responded to an emergency situation at the rest stop.”

Events, situations, conditions, and activities are almost always fillers used to make something sound more impressive (but not very effectively). Whenever you use one of those words, see if you can’t reword your sentence more concisely:

That dealership is holding a sale. The report was about yesterday’s rain in Oklahoma. The prospect for tomorrow is merely showers. Those farmers are worried about the drought, and the police officers responded to an emergency.

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Repetitive Redundancies

I  hope and trust you realize and understand the subject line above is a kidding joke.  So many phrases we hear and read daily are redundant, but we rarely have the awareness to eliminate them; we have gotten used to them.  Are any of these your favorites?

 

The end result

 

A contributing factor

 

Face up to the problem

 

Suffocated to death

 

Modest about himself

 

Own her own home

 

Revert back

 

Shrug her shoulders, nod her head

 

New developments

 

Proceed onward

 

Jewish rabbi

 

Future plans

 

Easter Sunday

 

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It’s Just Personal

Many redundancies crop up around “personal” or “personally”:

I personally think that….”   There’s a double.

These two are triples:

I myself personally think that…”

“It’s my own personal opinion that…”

Einstein said, “Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler.”  (Aren’t you glad he didn’t make the theory of relativity more complicated?)

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein (Photo credit: afagen)

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May 10, 2013 · 5:07 PM

Common Redundancies

Pay attention and you will frequently see and hear the following redundancies. To write (and speak) well, it helps to—gasp!—think about the words we use.  Strive to make your writing as concise as possible; if a word does no work, cut it out. Sharpen your axes:

Circle around

Absolutely free

Absolutely nothing

Free gift

True fact

The month of July

Final conclusion

I personally feel that

In my opinion, I think

Exactly identical

Entirely eliminated

 

 

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March 14, 2013 · 6:03 PM