Tag Archives: plain English

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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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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Unprecedented

Tweeting about the Chinese retrieval of an American drone, Donald Trump recently tweeted:

“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act.”

Did you notice the typo? Trump said it was an “unpresidented” act. I don’t believe such a word exists, but obviously he has things presidential on his mind. I would tender the observation that many things he has done and said are unprecedented. I only wish there were a way to unpresident him. Just my opinion.

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Trump’s Use of Language

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Full disclaimer: I am not and never was a supporter of Donald Trump. As much as I abhorred his style of campaigning and saw him as a misogynistic, racist, and cruel candidate (I cannot shake the image of him imitating a disabled reporter), I was always fascinated by his use of language. He usually spoke in very short sentences with a severely limited vocabulary, often in fragments, and repeated words and phrases many times in a row. He was far from a polished speaker, but I have no doubt his conversational style struck a chord with his audiences: he showed he was not above them, that he was at their level. He made them comfortable. Many poor, jobless, undereducated and uneducated people were able to relate to a New York City billionaire who attended an Ivy League school. Go figure.

The following items are far from a full analysis of his favorite words, just some that have stuck with me.

CLASSY: I built the Grand Hyatt right next to Grand Central Station —beautiful, classy job— but then the city denied my request to have the top 10 floors illuminated with my face at night. Can you believe that?

TERRIFIC: (About Obamacare): Repeal and replace with something terrific. (But no details were given.)

TREMENDOUS: I am worth a tremendous amount of money. I have had tremendous success.
(on Islam) There’s something there…there’s a tremendous hatred there.

HUGE (pronounced YUGE): It’s gonna be huge!

AMAZING: Yesterday was amazing—5 victories.

DANGEROUS: (on protesters at Trump speeches) They are really dangerous and they get in there and start hitting people.

TOUGH: Mike Tyson endorsed me. You know, all the tough guys endorse me. I like that. OK?

SMART: I’m, like, a really smart person.

MORON: (on Nelson Mandela’s funeral) What a sad thing that the memory of Nelson Mandela will be stained by the phony sign language moron who is in every picture at [the] funeral!

WE: (This indicates solidarity with his audiences. He is telling them what they believe and that he agrees with them.) We need to build a wall on the Mexican border. We are going to make Mexico pay for it.
We are going to make great trade deals.
We are going to bring back our jobs.
We will totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network.

THEY: (This word indicates “the other,” those who are in opposition.)  (on immigrants) They’re pouring in. They are bringing drugs, they are bringing crime.
The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.
(on poor people who become politicians) And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn’t the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They’re morons.

LOSER: (on John McCain) I supported him, he lost, he let us down. But you know, he lost, so I’ve never liked him as much after that, because I don’t like losers…. He’s not a war hero…. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

STUPID: I went to an Ivy League school. I’m highly educated. I know words. I have the best words, I have the best, but there is no better word than stupid. Right?

WINNING: We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning. Believe me. You’ll never get bored with winning. You’ll never get bored!

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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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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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Up, Up and Away!

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Are you aware that most “up” phrases clutter (up) your writing? Do you really need to type (up) your report, start (up) the copier, hunt (up) paper clips, fold (up) the newspaper or free (up) your staff?

TIP: When you proofread, look for superfluous words that do no work.

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New Job Titles

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According to an article in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times (9/24/15), it’s becoming somewhat trendy for people in the corporate world to invent their own titles. At Google, employees can give themselves any title they like. Who wants to be a regional general manager or a vice president when you can be the Jolly Good Fellow, the person in charge of Google’s meditation and mindfulness program (and remember, I’m just reporting this, not making it up). Google also has a Chief Extraterrestrial Observer: obviously, that’s the guy who founded the Google Earth Engine.

But it’s not just Google or even Silicon Valley. A designer now calls himself the Head of Touchy-Feely Graphics in an effort to avoid using the words “user experience.”

Need a Certified Thanatologist (and how does one become certified in that field)? Contact Gail Rubin, who helps people deal with all aspects of death. Her business card identifies her as “The Doyenne of Death.” Of course.

A hardware engineer named Mike Savini decided that since he specialized in solving computer glitches, he should be called a Bug Specialist. I have to wonder how many requests he gets to deal with ant or rat infestations.

Troika, a marketing company in Los Angeles, has hired Maya Imberman as Head of the Happiness Committee. Eva Scofield, who works for Graze, is a Snack Huntress for her company.

This seems to be a trend because, in part, these titles are good icebreakers and are thought to make employees more engaged with their work. I happen to see them as adding to the already pervasive jargon in the corporate world. What do you think?

I’ve been called a Grammar Guru as well as a Grammar Nazi. Somehow, I never felt the urge to put one of those on a business card. Right about now, I’m guessing many of you are thinking about what your actual titles should be. Feel free to send me the printable ones.

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Grammarphobia Blog and Woe Is I

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You may be familiar with the wonderful blog Grammarphobia (blog@grammarphobia.com). It is written by the author of the extremely, very, enormously wonderful book Woe Is I, Patricia T. O’Conner. Can you tell how much I love this book?

The subtitle is “The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.” Not only is the book written in plain English, it is written in clever, entertaining English. O’Connor frequently makes allusions to popular culture, for instance when giving this correct pronunciation:

“Nuclear. Pronounce it NOO-klee-ur (not NOO-kyoo-lur). ‘My business is nuclear energy,’ said Homer.”

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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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Nouns That Add No Meaning

images Avoid Jargon! Common in the tech industries but definitely found throughout the corporate world, creating nouns from other parts of speech is rampant. The result is jargon. Some refer to this process as “nominalization,” but I resist using that term because it and many other —ization words are unnecessary, often pretentious and silly: incentivization, calendarization, colorization, idolization, utilization, underutilization, overutilization—you get the point.

Speaking of points, “data points” and “price points” abound these days. The word “point” adds no information. “Data” and “price” say it all.

An ad for Daedalus Books in the July 27th New Yorker states: “STILL THE BEST BROWSE IN BARGAIN BOOKS.” I’m going on a browse. Did you find any good books on your browse?

On so-called reality TV makeover shows, you are treated to “the big reveal.” Newscasters make rain into a “rainfall event,” or “shower activity.” And don’t forget an “emergency situation.” Airlines refer to “the boarding process.” Companies speak of “deliverables” and “inputs.”

Noun strings abound: “a hospital employee relations improvement protocol” (a plan to improve hospital employee relations). NASA continues to work on the “International Space Station astronaut living quarters module development project”: (improving the living quarters of ISS astronauts).

A final example before you and I both go crazy: “Underground Mine Worker Safety Protection Procedures”: (Procedures for protecting mine workers). When you write, proofread more than once: check for obvious grammar and punctuation errors, but also proofread specifically for wordiness. If a word adds no meaning, cut it out. Your readers will be grateful.

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Translating Corporate-Speak (aka Jargon)

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Recently, Marilyn Katzman wrote an article in the New York Times about the difficulties she encountered when re-entering the workforce after having been “reorganized,” (you know, “let go”) from her previous position. Flooded with corporate jargon, she finally kept a list of the jargon words and their conversational equivalents. Asked if she was ready for her “bilateral” (I would have thought it referred to a mammogram), she ultimately deduced it meant attending a face-to-face meeting with her boss. Then she wondered if you can still say “boss.”

When asked if she had “bandwidth,” Katzman figured out that all it meant was time to work on a project. Well, of course. She soon realized that “strategy” and “strategic” were extremely useful, adding weight and gravitas to anything to which they were attached. “Strategic planning” was a biggie—but doesn’t all planning involve strategy? She also understood that she was thought to be more intelligent when she threw “transparency” into conversations and emails. Katzman learned that “decks” had nothing to do with levels in a parking garage but rather referred to PowerPoint presentations. You knew that, right? At meetings she would write down examples of this new-to-her corporate jargon: “deliverables” showed up with great frequency, as did “ramping up” and “drilling down.”

Before too long, a colleague informed her of an actual game, “B.S. Bingo,” consisting of cards ruled off into squares. Each square contained one of these supposedly important words, and at meetings people would X off a square when they heard the word in it. When a whole row was marked off, the attendee got to jump up and yell, “B.S!” When I taught in the corporate world, this game hadn’t be produced yet (why didn’t I think of it!), but I would tell my groups about another version of this game I had heard of: except my people were encouraged, when they completed a row, to yell, “Bullshit!” I’m still wondering if anyone ever did it.

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Simple or Simplistic?

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Too often I hear people use “simplistic” when they really mean “simple.” These two words are not synonyms; “simplistic” is not a fancy way of saying “simple.”

“Simple” means easy to understand, not overly complicated.(You knew that.)

“Simplistic” means overly simple, making a complicated situation seem easier than it actually is: “Alleviating the drought would be easy if people would just turn off the water when they brush their teeth.”

Simple, right? Einstein was saying, “Make it simple but not simplistic.”

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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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Does “Proper English” Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal this past week raising the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London. Here is the link to his article:
http://on.wsj.com/1CcHQ3V .

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 students 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. I will be here all this week. I am disappearing for the following two weeks for vacation. Whenever you write, I will have your emails when I get back (yes, I’m unplugging) and will answer you.

Thanks for reading. And thanks to AW for alerting me to the article that gave rise to this letter.

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Do You Know These Words?

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These are male ecdysiasts.

I was moseying around the Internet this afternoon and came across lists of very unusual English words. Many I am familiar with, and I bet you are too: Klutz, hootenanny, malarkey, ornery, doozy, brouhaha, filibuster and skedaddle. But how about these?

Widdershins—counterclockwise
Troglodyte—someone who lives in a cave (implying cluelessness because so removed from the world)
Borborygm—the sound of your stomach gurgling
Gastromancy—telling fortunes from the rumbling of stomachs
Codswallop—nonsense
Formication—Wrong! It means the feeling that ants are crawling on you
Fard—Wrong again. It’s face paint or makeup
Furphy—a portable water container
Hemidemisemiquaver—in music, a 1/64 note
Bumbershoot—an umbrella
Oocephalus—an egghead, which is what you will be called if you use many of these words. But they are fun to know.

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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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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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Just a Reminder

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I recently spent time with a person who qualified “unique”: things were “very unique” or “rather unique” and even “extremely unique.”

Did I say something? No. Did I want to? Did I ever. “Unique” means one of a kind. Nothing else like it (whatever “it” is) exists. Therefore, it can’t be qualified. Either something is unique or it isn’t. Qualifying “unique” is  rather like being a little bit pregnant.

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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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Transpire

Most people think “transpire” means “to happen or occur,” as in,”The community was very curious about what transpired at the closed-door Board of Education meeting.”

In fact, it means “to leak out.” Surprised? Stick around because in not too many years today’s misconception about the meaning of “transpire” will have become standard through common usage.

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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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Recur and Recurrence

Pay attention and you’ll frequently see and hear people use “reoccur” and “reoccurrence” to describe something that has happened before. Logically, they are correct: an act has occurred and then has happened again, so you would think it had re[again]occurred. But, in fact, the grammatically correct forms are “recur” and “recurrence.”

If you are guilty of this offense, please avoid engaging in further recurrences. Your readers and listeners will thank you.

 

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Letters of Sympathy

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Doubtless, these are the most difficult letters to write. You are feeling awkward, sad and helpless and are writing to someone who has suffered an enormous loss, be it a death or serious injury or perhaps a robbery, job loss, bankruptcy, natural disaster, miscarriage, stillbirth, death of a pet—you get the idea.

What you should NOT do is ignore the situation. I know you feel awkward, but the person suffering the loss wants to hear from you and will be disappointed if you fail to write. Put their feelings before your own.

Here are a few guidelines that could help you:

1. Use your natural voice. Picture the person you’re writing to and use the same words as if you were face to face. Do not revert to the platitudes, clichés and euphemisms associated with grief, such as “offering condolences,” “the dearly departed,” “loved one,””at this tragic time.” Avoid euphemisms: words for death such a “passed away,” “passed,” “passed on,” “expired” (as George Carlin used to say, “like a magazine subscription”). If a person has died, it is fine to use the words “death” and “died.” That is what happened.

2. Saying you’re sorry is honest. Try to recall a happy occasion or event surrounding the person who died. You can be lighthearted and even funny in your reminiscence; it will bring a smile to the one who has suffered the loss.

3. Don’t ask what you can do to help. That is vague and likely will not be picked up on. Instead, say you will call soon and check on them. Then put this on your calendar and do it.

4. Tell the person who has suffered the loss that you do not expect a response, that you know it is a burden.

5. Close with an expression of sympathy and affection (if appropriate) and a wish that the bereaved find comfort in memories of happy times in the past.

If you are honest and natural, your letter will be gratefully received. You will have done something good for someone in a difficult situation. It is far more meaningful to write honestly and openly than just to send a sympathy card with your signature after the message.

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Commonly Misused Words

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These three everyday words are frequently used incorrectly. Their true meanings may surprise you.

1. ENORMITY: Does not imply gigantic size. It means extreme evil, as in “the enormity of the murder of Abraham Lincoln.”

2. NAUSEOUS: Doesn’t mean to feel as if you are going to vomit; it means to cause that feeling in others. If you are about to toss your cookies, you are    NAUSEATED.

3. PERUSE: Does not mean to read quickly, to skim. It means to look over something very carefully.

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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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Can or May?

UnknownChances are we all had teachers embed in our crania that CAN should be used for something you are able to do and MAY is for what is permissible.

Many seemingly inviolate rules of English are giving way to expediency. If you ask someone if you can get her something from the coffee shop, everyone understands what you mean. Of course you are able to get her the coffee. May you? Are you allowed to? Is it permitted?

These are silly distinctions, in my opinion. If your meaning is not open to interpretation—whether you use can or may—be my guest and use whichever word is natural for you. No one will deride you for continuing to make the distinction, but neither should they tsk tsk at you for ignoring the old rule.

We have to recognize that the English language changes. All languages change over time. If you are not comfortable with prevailing usage, stick with what you are comfortable using. Sometimes there is no clear “right” or “wrong.”

Feel free to disagree.

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More Favorite Clichés From Journalism

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Thanks to CG for sending me an enormous list of journalism clichés compiled by Carlos Lozada at the Washington Post. I’ve put quite a few of them on my blog recently, but here’s a new crop to, shall we say, enjoy. Lozada finds these by scanning the newspaper, but if you work in the corporate world they will be very familiar to you. Once these clichés are unleashed, they tend to spread throughout the land, infiltrating advertising, the classroom, the courtroom, the boardroom, even so-called areas of entertainment.

You may be taken by a new-to-you turn of phrase. Social media easily encourage their use. Within mere days, words that seemed fresh and new are suddenly old hat, so last year, five minutes ago. They have become a cliché, to be avoided like the plague.

Here, for your avoidance, are many. I assume they will all look very familiar to you:

If you will (actually, I won’t)

A cautionary tale

Needless to say (then don’t say it)

Suffice it to say (if it suffices, then just say it)

This is not your father’s [anything]

[Anything] 2.0 (or 3.0, or 4.0…)

At a crossroads (unless referring to an actual intersection)

The powers that be

Outside the box (describes creative thinking — with a cliché)

A favorite Washington parlor game

Don’t get me wrong

Yes, Virginia, there is a [something]

Christmas came early for [someone]

Chock full (“full” is 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

Underscores

Cycle of violence (unless referring to a particularly vicious Schwinn)

Searing indictment

Broken system (or, “the [anything] system is broken”)

Famously (if readers know it, you don’t need to tell them it is famous; if they don’t know it, you just made them feel stupid)

The Other (or “otherize,” “otherization” and other variations)

Effort (as a verb)

 

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More Journalism Clichés

UnknownThese were compiled by Carlos Lozada, of the Washington Post. Clichés are new and interesting when we first hear them, but by the fifth time we are yawning. Here are just a few more of the 135 he listed. Avoid these like the plague (joke):

What happens in [somewhere] stays in [somewhere]

Oft-cited

Little-noticed

Closely watched

Hastily convened

Much ballyhooed

Shrouded in secrecy

Since time immemorial

Tipping point

Inflection point

Point of no return

 

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Verbing and Nouning

Verbing and nouning are favorite pastimes of so many writers. Surely you know what these two words mean. No?

Verbing takes a verb and turns it into a noun: James, that was a brave ask you put forth at the meeting this morning, and because of your bravery we scored a huge get.

As an old “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon pointed out years ago, “Verbing weirds language.”

Conversely, nouning takes what is usually a noun and verbifies it (as I just did): James suggested we conference about the budget this afternoon. We need to find a solve for our fiscal woes. We all remember how James orchestrated last year’s recover, so we hope he can do it again.

People use this kind of language thinking it makes them look important and knowledgeable. It doesn’t. It makes them look pompous and ridiculous. Straightforward, simple English is best.

 

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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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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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Is It Raining Continuously or Continually?

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Finally, finally, we have had measurable rain in Southern California. Until this storm began last night, we had just a little over an inch of rain this entire season, which began last July. Normal rainfall for this period is 11 inches. We who live here want and need more—a lot more. But do we want it to rain continuously or continually?

It’s easy to get these two words confused. CONTINUOUSLY means without interruption, whereas CONTINUALLY means sporadically, intermittently. The former would be a problem, as the hillsides are so dry that a deep soaking all at once would lead to the landslides you read about here. On-and-off rain, continual rain, would allow the water to sink in without causing erosion. A way to remember the difference between these two words might be to notice that CONTINUOUS has an S, and that, unfortunately, stands for slides. Think continual rain for us here in this parched land.

Yes, the climate is changing rapidly, a cause of concern for all.

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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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Massaging and Harmonizing

A friend in the business world who shares my distain of overstuffed language sent me this beauty today. Someone in his company actually wrote, “…please let me know if you find errors as you massage the data as I will be happy to harmonize that with [Jason].”

I am always impressed by the creativity evidenced in business communications, even though the writers of these goodies don’t seem particularly creative in the rest of their lives.  Do they speak like this when they leave the office?

May you find harmony in your day—and perhaps sneak in a massage while you’re at it.

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A Foreign Language?

You have to love the business world. It has concocted a whole new form of English that sometimes sounds so, so important and impressive—until you translate it into the everyday English most of us use and realize that so-called business English is nothing but puffery.

Good English is good English, no matter the context. We already have all the words we need to make our ideas readily understood.  There is no need for writing like this:

“This is a project for approval by the appropriate decision bodies.”

What, pray tell, is a decision body?  Is it a person (with a body, one would hope) who is authorized to make a decision in that office?  Or is it a committee (made up of several bodies) delegated to give approval?

All the writer needed to write was something like, “This project will ultimately be approved by [a named person or a specified committee].

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I Dare You to Translate This

I bring you another example from the corporate world:

“As projects tied to [this program] progress, a regular cadence of communication updates will be provided.”

“A regular cadence of communication updates”?  Who comes up with these phrases?  I am awed by the author’s sense of self-importance.  What guts, what courage, what chutzpah to write like that!

Here is my feeble attempt at guessing what the writer meant:

“You will get regular updates about the projects connected to this program.”

It’s a good idea to use the pronoun “you” to involve each reader. It’s also a good idea to use the active voice.  Another good idea (I’m full of them today) is to drop some of the slightly la-de-dah words, such as “provide,” and go for something really simple, such as “get.”  Stop “purchasing” and start “buying.”  Stop “progressing” and just “go.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Now Translate This!

Here is another jawdropper from the corporate world:

“…a strategic framework to catalyze positive and consistent operational improvements…”

What do you suppose that means?  Here is my guess—but it only a guess:

“…a plan to bring about positive, regular improvement [in some area, which is not defined but should be].”

Have you noticed these days how almost everything is defined as being “strategic”?  Apparently, if it’s not “strategic” it’s not important (in the corporate mind).  The most common use is a “strategic plan.”  Don’t all plans require strategy? You think through what is needed to solve a problem and then implement it. How can you plan without using strategy?

Too often writers don’t think about the words they want. Because we are bombarded with verbiage (that word carries a negative connotation) every day, we have these chunks of bullshit floating over our heads. It is so easy to write by just reaching up and grabbing a chunk that sounds oh-so-impressive and may hint at the meaning we want, and then shoving it into our own writing.  The result is vague, upholstered language that makes the reader guess at what we really mean.

It’s worth picturing your reader sitting across your desk while you explain in plain English what you really mean. It won’t take much time, and you will eliminate guesswork and errors caused by misinterpretation.

Off my soapbox I go.

Wikimedia Strategic Plan cover image

Wikimedia Strategic Plan cover image (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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April 15, 2013 · 7:42 PM

Translate This!

A friend in the corporate world sends me wonderful (read: hideous) examples of inflated writing she sees.  We both wonder where these words and phrases originate.  Do people sit in their offices deliberately trying to make something simple into something complex?  If so, what do they hope to accomplish?  Do they believe others will see them as more intelligent and professional?

Here is a sentence she sent me today.  What do you think it means?

“This probably works out better for you, in that it provides you more time to socialize the idea with the others.”

To socialize the idea with others!  Really?  I’m guessing the writer meant the recipient would have more time to send the idea to others and get their opinions so they could all talk about it and come to a decision.

Instead of the weird “socialize,” “discuss” would have done the job.

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Miscellaneous Lawyer Words and Phrases

I’ve given you lists of the “here” and “there” lawyer words—but they are certainly not limited to lawyers.  They have infected general business writing and are used by people when they are trying to sound tough and important.  Instead, these words make their writing bloated and self-important.  The only time I advocate using this language is if you want to sound mean and convey to adversaries that they are in a non-negotiable position, that you are not to be argued with.  You won’t sound nice, but you will be flexing your muscles.

Here are some more lawyer words that are normally best avoided:

1. whereby (by which, how)

2. wherein (in which, how)

3. whereof (of what)

4. the latter, the former (use the actual names)

5. the writer (I), the undersigned (I, we)

6. to my attention (to me)

7. As per our previous conversation (When we spoke yesterday (or whenever it was))

8. Should you have any questions, please advise (If you have any questions, please contact me)

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