Tag Archives: pompous writing

May I Have Two Tickets, Please?

These are eventful times. I live in the Los Angeles area, where many fires are burning. Our house is in no danger, but we are going to pack a “go bag” just in case we have to evacuate.

It got quite windy today and I heard newscasters, both on radio and television, giving information about the “wind event.” When  it rains, we have “rain events.” I led workshops for many automobile companies, and they were fond of staging “sales events.” (Does that suggest balloons and doughnuts?)

Why tack on those “events”? It’s perfectly clear to just say wind, rain, and sale. The event doesn’t make the message any more clear, but it does add an air of pomposity.

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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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What Is Business Writing?

© Judi Birnberg

 

Somewhere, somehow, people in the business world got the idea that using everyday English for their written communications was just not professional. The simplest sentence turned into a Pronouncement From On High. It was taboo to write As we discussed yesterday. Writing As per our previous conversation/dialog yesterday…. was suddenly seen as elegant and professional. The Latin phrase and redundancy made it even weightier. Bravo for you, middle manager!

I spent over 20 years in the corporate world leading business writing seminars in which participants came to see this stilted and pretentious style of writing as an impediment to communication. I urged them to write as if they were speaking to the recipient sitting across their desk. No one speaks in that bureaucratic manner, so why write that way? Obviously, the corporations that hired me knew what I was teaching and wanted their employees to lose the jargon. I did my little part, but I am quite sure the pompous style still lives at many companies. Simple, straightforward, everyday English ensures that all recipients will understand the message. It saves time and money. Questions about intent are no longer necessary. Say what you mean, just as if you were talking to your audience face to face. Business writing is clear, direct, and concise. That’s all it takes.

 

 

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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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Welcome Aboard

 

images We were in Florida over Thanksgiving week, visiting our daughter and her family and celebrating our granddaughter’s 16th birthday. Sixteen? How can this be?

I have always been fascinated with “airline speak,” and Delta did not disappoint me on this trip. Airlines take what could be a simple sentence and puff it up, using more and fancier words than necessary to get the same message across.

My theory is that because most people have some degree of fear when flying, airlines believe that by sounding more “professional,” you won’t think so much about being seven miles up, going five-hundred miles an hour in a metal tube, and having zero control over what happens. Turbulence? Almost a given. Another plane in the area? How close is that plane I see out the window, anyway? Did a terrorist get through security? Does the constantly coughing person next to me have tuberculosis? Flying is a joy, right?

Therefore, we hear things like, “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure,” which really means, as George Carlin explained, “Broken plane!” “If your ticket is still in your possession” translates to, “If you have your ticket.” “This is Captain Parker” made Carlin wonder,”Who made this man a captain? Did I sleep through a military swearing in?” “Welcome to Los Angeles, where the local time is 10 p.m.” Of course it’s the local time. I know we didn’t fly to Laos. “Be certain to retrieve all your personal possessions.” “What else would I have with me?” wondered Carlin. “A fountain I stole from the park?”

Bon voyage!

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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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Have a Seat

 

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I remember many years ago first hearing chair used as a verb and thinking it was odd. But with all language, usage makes the strange familiar. In the olden days, the person heading the committee was a chairman, no matter that person’s sex. Now chairman is used to indicate a male, chair is used for either sex, and chairwoman is frowned upon. Dianne Feinstein is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, even when she stands up.

Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer and Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage, thought chair (v.) was a fad and spoofed its use by inventing some parallel words: He imagined people elevatoring themselves to their penthouses, getting dinner-jacketed and going theatering. Fortunately, none of those atrocities caught on, but today you can sit on a chair or guide a committee.

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An Important Distinction

 

images.png    While driving yesterday, I saw a truck on the infamous 405 freeway. The company installs audio and visual components and proudly displayed its name in various places on the truck:

SIMPLISTIC SOLUTIONS

I was in no danger of driving off the freeway since my maximum speed at that point ranged from 5-10 mph. But I did swallow my gum.

Being the crank that I am, I sent the company an e-mail today:

To Simplistic Solutions:

I saw one of your trucks on the 405 yesterday and almost croaked. It appears you do not realize that “simplistic” and “simple” are not synonyms.  You know what “simple” means; “simplistic” means overly simple, too simple—it is most definitely a NEGATIVE.  I am certain that is not the idea you want potential customers to have about your company.

Cheers anyway—

Judi Birnberg

 

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Nix the Cooperation

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Thank you for your cooperation.

 

This is a very common closing to a business letter (and it’s also a cliché).

Here is the typical situation: You have asked your readers to do something you know they don’t want to do. They have neither the time nor interest, but you need their help. You give them the order, but to sweeten the deal you then add, Thank you for your cooperation.

Can you see how insincere that sounds? They are going to cooperate only because they have to (or else).

Generally, in business writing you want to get to the point and get out as quickly as possible. However, this situation calls for more words so your readers will understand you know you are imposing on them.

Try something like this:

Jackie, I know you are exceedingly busy this week, and I greatly appreciate your taking the time to help me out with this project. Thanks so much for lending a hand; I’ll do the same for you whenever you need my help.

Five words or a whole paragraph? If you write the paragraph, your co-workers will likely have more respect for you. That’s important.

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Two Common Mispronunciations

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MISCHIEVOUS is pronounced MIS CHIV ISS, not MIS CHEEVE E US.

GRIEVOUS is often misspelled and pronounced GREEVE E US. It’s GREEVE ISS.

Incidentally, looking at the subject line of this post reminds me that some people say and write PRONOUNCIATION and MISPRONOUNCIATION. True, the verb is PRONOUNCE, but for the noun forms, the O before the U is dropped.

Remember, I just teach the rules. I think they’re as crazy as you do.

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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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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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More Commonly Misused Phrases

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These lists certainly have been popular. I’ve heard from many of you, and you even offered additional suggestions, for which I am very grateful. Here is another crop of malaprops, a word made famous by Richard Sheridan in his play The Rivals (1775), which contains a character named Mrs. Malaprop.

1. Flush out Nope. You mean to flesh out an argument, put some meat on the bones. If you flush it out, you know where it goes.

2. Unlease a hornet’s nest You want to cancel your lease on that hornet’s nest? I understand. But more likely you want to unleash it, to set those hornets free to sting someone else.

3. Electrical votes This is shocking. Better to use electoral votes. Imagine, we’ll be counting electoral votes in only 14 months! And yet the campaign is in full swing. Just shoot me.

4. Upset the apple tart I have personally done this, and it takes all the joy out of dessert. If you upset an apple cart, you are eliminating order and causing chaos.

5. Alcoholics Unanimous Alcoholics Anonymous protects the participants’ privacy.

6. A vast suppository of information  Yes, that has been written. Repository is so much more pleasant, not to mention accurate.

7. Lavatories of innovation  Probably written by the same person who wrote #6. Go with laboratories.

8. You could have knocked me over with a fender Pretty easy to do. To indicate extreme surprise, use a feather.

9. Tow the line I have never tried to tug a line of anything. If you toe the line, you come right up to the edge and follow rules.

10. Very close veins That they may be, and I am sorry for you. But the correct term is varicose, meaning swollen and twisted.

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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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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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My All-Time Favorite Typo

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This goes back a long way, but it is a typo I saw with my own eyes in the San Francisco Chronicle (often called the SF Comical because of its frequent typos) in the early 1970s. It was soon reprinted in The New Yorker for readers’ enjoyment.

Here is the back story: In those days, the Chronicle published not only engagement and marriage announcements but also divorce announcements of so-called prominent residents. Also at that time of the Vietnam War, many troop trains were leaving from Oakland, CA. That may seem like a non-sequitur, but stay tuned.

A prominent San Francisco “socialite” at that time, whose parties and adventures were closely monitored by the newspaper, was named Dolly McMasters Johnson. This is what the Chronicle wrote when the Johnsons announced they were divorcing: “Mr. (Iforgethisfirstname) Johnson is suing his wife, Dolly McMasters Johnson, for divorce on grounds of frigidity. [Insert a troop train.]”

I recall the article went on to give personal facts of interest to readers about the unhappy couple, but after that lead, what could be more fascinating?

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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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Capitalization Rules

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(Add a question mark and I agree completely.)

Sometimes I get the feeling that many writers think they were, perhaps, Benjamin Franklin or Abigail Adams in an earlier life. Those people lived during the time when words could be capitalized at will. In fact, rules now do exist for when to use them. Here’s a quick refresher:

1. The personal pronoun I, no matter where it occurs in a sentence: My friend and I just ate lunch. I’m no longer hungry because I’ve had a big meal.

2. The first word of a sentence.

3. Names of specific people: Madonna, Captain Kangaroo

4. Names of specific places: Acapulco, the Caspian Sea

5. Names of specific things: the Statue of Liberty, Kennedy High School

6. Days of the week, months of the year, but not the seasons: Tuesday, August, spring

7. Titles of books, movies, TV programs, courses: The Goldfinch, Midnight in Paris, Curb Your Enthusiasm, History 101

8. People’s titles only when the person is named immediately before or after the title: Secretary of State John Kerry (but John Kerry is the secretary of state); Pope Francis I (but Francis I is the pope)

9. Names of specific companies, organizations and departments: Occidental Petroleum, Kiwanis, the Human Resources Department

10. Geographical locations but not geographical directions: the Far East, Southern California, the Midwest (but I drove south on the San Diego Freeway for 50 miles)

11. Prepositions when they are four or more letters long: From, With, Among, in, out, Between

Be very sparing in using capitalization for emphasis. Let your words show the emphasis. As with any form of calling attention to your message (e.g., bold, italics, underlining), when you emphasize everything you end up emphasizing nothing.

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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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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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Do You Care Enough? Too Much?

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I love it when people send me examples of bad writing. (It makes my job so much easier.) Here is the latest from V.M., who relishes these goofs as much as I do. She received a brochure last week from “Beyond Caring Home Care Services.”

You know what the owners were trying to convey. They wanted us to know that not only do they care, but they go beyond caring to do many other helpful things. The problem is that according to the common meaning of “beyond caring,” you no longer care. You used to care but now you are past that; you are beyond caring.

It’s possible the brochure was written by someone whose first language wass not English and who was not familiar with this particular expression. If a document was important, I always used to encourage my ESL students to run their writing by someone whose facility with English they could trust, to make sure they were not making inadvertent mistakes.

P.S. Winnie the Pooh should have used a period or a semicolon between those two sentences, not a comma. But I love him, and he admits he is a bear of very little brain.

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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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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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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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A Mixed Bag

Here is a giggle (or a groan) to start your week:

In Sunday’s LA Times I saw an ad for free lunch and information meetings put on by the Neptune Society. In case you don’t know about that company, it performs cremations. I noticed that one of their sessions is being held in a Sizzler restaurant. Say no more.

I’d like you to look at the following link. It contains good advice about how to conduct yourself in the workplace, both in speech and posture, so that you are not diminishing yourself without realizing you are doing so. To this list, I would also add the ubiquitous use of “like” and starting sentences with “So” when it adds no information but is merely a dull and repetitive filler.

http://www.refinery29.com/2013/10/55289/uptalk-communication-mistakes#page-

And to end with a laugh, by now you probably have seen the Al Yankovic video about “Word Crimes.” Many, many people sent it to me this past week, knowing it was something I would love. It seems to have gone viral, but if you haven’t seen it, here is the link:

http://radio.com/2014/07/15/weird-al-word-crimes-music-video-blurred-lines-grammar-nazi-prince/

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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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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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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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Lawyers’ Favorite “There” Words

I recently gave you some alternatives for lawyers’ “here” words. Today I’ll tackle “there” words.  Clear, straightforward English is always your best choice, even if it takes a few more words to make your point. You won’t sound so self-important and your readers will know immediately what you mean.

1. Thereafter (after that)

2. Thereby (because of that)

3. Therein (in that respect)

4. Thereof (from that)

5. Thereto (until that)

6. Thereupon (Immediately after that)

7. Therewith (with that)

There!  I feel better.

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“Here” Ye, “Here” Ye

In the legal world, a push (OK, a gentle shove) is on for lawyers to use plain, everyday English.  Here are some of their old standbys  that use “here,” along with their alternatives.  You don’t have to be a lawyer to benefit from giving up this la-de-dah language.

1. Hereafter, hereby (now)

2. Herein (here)

3. Hereinafter (from now on)

4. Hereinbefore, hereto (until now)

5. Hereupon (immediately after this, right now)

6. Herewith (with this letter)

Don’t make your readers translate English into English.

 

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A Strategic Sunset

My head is reeling.  A friend in the corporate world e-mailed me today with this beauty.  He writes that it is an excerpt from an email saying the Microsoft Live Meeting product [don’t worry if you don’t know what that is—neither do I] is being phased out and replaced with something called Lync. Then he adds, “I’m beginning to think I live in an alternate dimension from the rest of the people I work with.”  He does.

<<Good morning — As you are aware, Microsoft has made a strategic decision to position Lync as the core collaboration solution and to ultimately sunset the Live Meeting Service (LMS).>>

I don’t know where to start.  How about at the beginning?

1. Microsoft made a decision.  ALL decisions are “strategic.”  Lose that overused adjective.  And instead of saying “Microsoft has made a decision,” just use the active verb and write, “Microsoft has decided….”

2. Microsoft isn’t “positioning” Lync; it’s going to use it.

3.  What is a “core collaboration solution”?  I’m guessing it means the primary means of collaborating.  That would probably be too direct and clear.

4. “Sunset”!  As a verb!  Really?  This writer means “to discontinue, cancel, stop.”  What is wrong with simple, direct English?

People think they sound “professional” when they spew verbiage like this.  They don’t sound professional; they sound pompous and full of themselves—and ridiculous.

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