Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mistakes are made by the passive voice

Few things will bring more clarity to your writing than the active voice.

In the active voice, a subject verbs an object. In the passive voice, an object is verbed by a subject.
Active: I rode the bicycle. Four words. "I" is the most important thing. 
Passive. The bicycle was ridden by me. Six words. "Bicycle" is the most important thing.
So what's wrong with the passive? For one thing, as we know from listening to politicians, it can be used to conceal things.
"Mistakes were made."
By whom?

A second objection is that the passive voice requires more work on the part of the reader. The WhiteSmoke blog illustrates this with a movie reference.
If you've seen the movie Star Wars,  think of how Yoda speaks. He inverts the order of subjects and objects, and his sentences are a little jumbled and hard to understand at first.

Yoda Quote: "Named must your fear be before banish it you can."

Yoda uses a different order than regular Subject Verb Object English. He uses a mix of patterns, including VOS. Either way, Yoda's words are a bit confusing at first. They require additional thought. You don't want the same for your writing; the goal is clarity and boldness, not ambiguity or lengthy contemplation.
There are perfectly good reasons to use the passive -- perhaps you don't know who or what the subject is, or you want to emphasize the object. But make those excepptions to the rule.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

When to Capitalize and when Not to

Not good.
One of the more common errors in business writing is random capitalization. Typically the names of company departments are capitalized, and I don't know why. For instance: Human Resources. Sometimes I'll see Finance department, with department not considered worthy of the extra attention.

The rule in all writing is that common names don't get capitalized. House, for instance, is common, because it can refer to multiple dwellings. Thus, unless it's at the beginning of a sentence, it isn't capitalized. White House, on the other hand, is the proper name of a very specific house.

I suppose in the case of finance department you could argue that you're referring to a very specific finance department. In which case I would invoke the Terry Rule: capitalized words are harder to read and you don't need them here so skip it. That's a good rule, I think.

Grammar Girl offers a reason for over capitalization:
One mistake business writers often make is capitalizing words simply for emphasis or to augment their importance. Such errant capitalization happens frequently in press releases and other promotional materials. Hyperbole is no stranger in that realm. Nevertheless, it does not make your pork rinds crunchier and tastier if you capitalize the words “Pork” and “Rinds.” Murray Munn commented on the “Pork Rind” kind of capitalization on the Grammar Girl Facebook page. He calls them “pride capitals” and speculates that “What we admire, we capitalize.” For example, he says he often sees librarians write “library” with a capital L.
What about titles of people? The rule is that if the title comes before the name it's capitalized. If it comes after it's not.
When in doubt, or whenever you encounter someone with a lengthy official job title, give the person’s name first, then follow with the title, lowercase [for example]: Bartholomew Z. Bartholomew, 2nd assistant vice president for sales, northeast region, for Amalgamated Malaria Inc. His name and the company name are uppercase, but the rest of the words, such as “assistant vice president for sales,” are lowercase.
That's so you won't end up with "Second Assistant Vice President For Sales, Northeast Region, for Amalgamated Malaria Inc. Bartholomew Z. Bartholomew. Although if that really is his name I don't think he would mind.

 Here's a rule: When in doubt about capitalization, don't.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

Several of Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules for writing apply when we're writing at work.

Keep It Simple
As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do. 
Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’
Have the Guts to Cut
It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
Pity the Readers
Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years. 
So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, sining like nightingales.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

If you simplify your English

"A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly. . . .

"If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin, where it belongs."

Monday, January 14, 2013

What's another word for thesaurus?

Does it matter?

Consider what would happen to Scripture if a thesaurus had been around:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Those who mourn are going to be happy, too, because they will be comforted.
The inheritance of the earth will belong to the meek, and that will be most fortunate for them.
People who hunger for righteousness will experience a favorable state of affairs . . .
So repetition is ok, Anthony Esolen writes. Who would argue with the Bible? And, he argues, very few words are really synonymous with one another anyway. Look at a few “synonyms” for big: large, vast, massive, enormous, great, gargantuan. Put them in sentences:
  • Elsie is a big woman on the committee.
  • The distance between Earth and its moon is vast.
  • The elephant’s shoulders are massive, weighing hundreds of pounds.
  • Mr. Calhoun wears large pants.
  • The football player put away a gargantuan supper.
  • It’s a great deal.
Now change them around.
  • Elsie is a large woman on the committee.
  • The distance between Earth and its moon is massive.
  • The elephant’s shoulders are vast, weighing hundreds of pounds.
  • Mr. Calhoun wears gargantuan pants.
  • The football player put away a great supper.
  • It’s a big deal.
Hmmm ...

Friday, January 11, 2013

Those annoying independent clauses

I frequently see independent clauses -- clauses that can stand alone as a sentence -- joined together haphazardly.

There are three basic ways to do it: use a comma followed by a conjunction, a semicolon alone, or a semicolon followed by a sentence modifier. A sentence modifier is a word or phrase that is not the subject or predicate but adds to the meaning of the sentence.

The Simply Study Guides website provides these examples:
Incorrect: The delivery boy knew he carried strange cargo, but still ventured off unafraid.

Correct: The delivery boy knew he carried strange cargo, but he still ventured off unafraid.

Incorrect: My math teacher doesn't know how to lecture, she should have remained a student.

Correct: My math teacher doesn't know how to lecture; she should have remained a student.
 [In my mind this previous example, known as a comma splice, is one of the most egregious grammatical errors. Okay, it just annoys me ear.]
Incorrect: Gregor has not changed physically; but has given himself an excuse to separate himself from the pain of previous experiences.

Correct: Gregor has not changed physically; however, he has given himself an excuse to hide from the pain of previous experiences.
You might ask yourself, as well, whether the clauses ought to be joined in the first place. Perhaps two sentences is better. Does the meaning require joining? Does it contribute to a more pleasing style? What will most help the reader grasp the meaning?

Having trouble recognizing independent clauses? The Tongue Untied has some examples, and offers this slightly different insight:
The independent clause is the main idea of the sentence. It is not dependent on another clause for meaning and context. 
Avoid using the description that the independent clause can "stand by itself" or "makes sense by itself."Many dependent clauses, when removed from the context of the sentence, make sense on their own. Nonetheless, they are dependent on the rest of the sentence for meaning and should not be evaluated outside of the sentence.
You really don't want to get between two grammarians. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

You might want to socialize this

I once worked with a brilliant fellow who came into my office one day complaining that his wife had not done something he wanted her to do. "I even wrote her a memo!" he exclaimed.

I was reminded of this because I just came across an hilarious article from several years ago in The Wall Street Journal by Jared Sandberg in which he discusses the tendency to bring corporate jargon home.
When Michael Schiller, a management consultant, wanted to talk with his 15-year-old daughter about where she was going with her friends, he told her, "You have to recognize your ARAs and measure against them." 
His wife rolled her eyes, knowing that he was using HR speak to address accountability, responsibility and authority. His daughter, he says, "looked at me like I was from outer space."
Really good stuff.
A couple of months ago, when Mike Puccini was griping at the dinner table about the whopper electrical bill, his wife said, "Well, you should push back." 
To which Mr. Puccini ultimately said what his children, young adults, were also thinking: "What are you talking about?" 
Argue the matter, she explained. 
"Then say that!" Mr. Puccini snapped, which resulted in the two of them "pushing back and forth for the next 20 minutes," he says. "Corporate lingo is worse than general slang and even curse words."
In the article Sandberg tries to get at why we talk this way in the office. A few ideas:
Those fluent in the corporate argot use it as easy shorthand. It's also a handy way to appear to know what you're talking about when you don't.

Kristine Fitch, editor of the journal Research on Language and Social Interaction, says linguistic patterns are sometimes habit, sometimes hidden agenda, sometimes both. "You can pretend it's just a habit," she says, but it is meant to signify your status in a group to which the audience doesn't belong. You get to talk like the boss, or sound like the latest leadership manual.
And this infects the children.
When Denise Watkins found that one of her girls was blaming the other for something that, say, broke by itself, she'd ask them, "What was the catalyst behind this?" 
"I told my husband we're speaking far too much corporate speech around here," she says. "Sometimes we don't even know what we're talking about."
And we're speaking too much corporate speech in the office as well.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Please don't say this

I'm begging you.

For the past 38 years Lake Superior State University has compiled a list of words and expressions that should be banished from the English language.

This year, the expression Americans would most like banished is, predictably, "the fiscal cliff." Other top submissions of words and expressions needing banishment:

Kick the can down the road: A child's game has turned into the way legislators express their inability to do their jobs. Rassmussen reports that just 5 percent of Americans think Congress is doing an excellent job. Perhaps it's time voters kicked these do-nothings to the curb.

Double-down: Oh stop it.

YOLO: This expression, which stands for "you only live once," is used by every knucklehead in the country to explain why they narrowly missed being on this year's listing of Darwin award winners. At least the expression "it seemed like a good idea at the time" intimates you won't be doing a similarly stupid action again soon. In this case, the YOLO set appear unrepentant and unwilling to learn.

Spoiler alert: Expression used to ridicule the one member of the YOLO set who has the functioning brain cells to say: "Uh, not a good idea...."

Bucket List: Five-year-old movie about the things two cancer patients wanted to do before they died. See YOLO and get over it already.

Trending: Trend, turned into a verb, is ever so much more annoying than when "Googling," which was a made-up name, became a verb. Hopefully, like pet rocks, this fad of talking up what's trending will fade.

Superfood: This refers to anything that hasn't been triple-processed; hydrogenated; dried; or placed into a plastic wrapper that will keep it fresh for 25 years. People used to call this food.

Guru: Unless you're in an ashram, you are probably referring to an expert.

When less is more

Here's a little quirk of the human mind we can use to make our writing and speaking more persuasive.

The best way to understand it is with an example. Suppose you're in a job interview, and you've described your impressive degrees, wide-ranging experience and considerable skills. Then, as an after thought, you add, "And I studied Spanish for two years."

So that will just add a bit more to all your qualifications, right?


"You've just fallen victim to a phenomenon that psychologists have recently discovered, called the Presenter's Paradox," says Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., associate director at the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School. "It's another fascinating example of how our instincts about selling — ourselves, our company, or our products — can be surprisingly bad."
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: We assume when we present someone with a list of our accomplishments (or with a bundle of services or products), that they will see what we're offering additively. If going to Harvard, a prestigious internship, and mad statistical skills are all a "10" on the scale of impressiveness, and two semesters of Spanish is a "2," then we reason that added together, this is a 10 + 10 + 10 + 2, or a "32" in impressiveness. So it makes sense to mention your minimal Spanish skills — they add to the overall picture. More is better. 
Only more is not in fact better to the interviewer (or the client or buyer), because this is not how other people see what we're offering. They don't add up the impressiveness, they average it. They see the Big Picture — looking at the package as a whole, rather than focusing on the individual parts.
More is actually not better, if what you are adding is of lesser quality than the rest of your offerings. Highly favorable or positive things are diminished or diluted in the eye of the beholder when they are presented in the company of only moderately favorable or positive things.
Can you imagine how you  might employ this insight? What about a sales presentation in person or on paper? What about a speech? What about a PowerPoint slide jammed with bullet points?

I think what Halvorson might be saying is that often less is more.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Is the book dead or not?

The old library. Good enough for me.
In my small town, the corner on Main Street where the library sits is wrapped in fabric fencing, shielding from view a major construction project to expand the building.

I suppose it's going to resemble the library in Darien, Connecticut, not too many miles away, which is an impressive, sprawling structure.

As I drove by the construction my taxes are funding I wondered: Why are they doing this if the paper book is dead? Are libraries, like any good bureaucracy, reinventing themselves to stay alive?

They're certainly trying. The State of Connecticut is pouring millions into library renovations.

Two articles in The Wall Street Journal get at this matter from two different angles.

Peter Mandel, a children's book author, has noticed how his library has morphed into something digital.
Remember library books? Prior to the iPad and Kindle, readers used to pore over these paper and cardboard rectangles, possibly savoring their musty smell, their cover art and typefaces. 
But take a peek around your local library. You'll see oceans of DVDs, CDs, copy machines and computer terminals, with customers queued up to take their turn with all this shared technology. Somewhere in the background—or more than likely exiled to the basement—are the stacks for book-browsing that we used to know.
Nicholas Carr, on the other hand, tells us paper book lovers not to worry.
Half a decade into the e-book revolution, though, the prognosis for traditional books is suddenly looking brighter. Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.

How attached are Americans to old-fashioned books? Just look at the results of a Pew Research Center survey released last month. The report showed that the percentage of adults who have read an e-book rose modestly over the past year, from 16% to 23%. But it also revealed that fully 89% of regular book readers said that they had read at least one printed book during the preceding 12 months. Only 30% reported reading even a single e-book in the past year.
Everything old is new again. So will DVDs or books fill my new library?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Death to all adjectives!

"As to the Adjective; when in doubt, strike it out."

-- Mark Twain

I recently encountered this sentence in a client's draft of a white paper:
Inconsistent, often contradictory demands for detail are so widespread, costly and predictable ...
The sentence is only half over and we have five adjectives describing "demands for detail." Each adjective is an idea in itself, a concept that requires some thinking.

There is a no way a reader can handle that many ideas in the short span of time it takes to read the sentence. So the reader will just rush by, recording this group of words in his brain as mush.

Elsewhere in the paper we get:
... a low risk, high payback ...
This is just two adjectives, of course, but they are made memorable by the contrast of "low" and "high," even though what is low and what is high are different in kind. Moreover, we easily get the whole idea of taking little risk for a big payoff. The only verbal risk here is that this is something of a cliche.

Further on we encounter:
... strategic and operational consistency ...
This is not as powerful as "high" and "low," but it is acceptable, because it delineates two contrasting realms. In business we understand those realms to be different, and this phrase suggests one thing works in both. Catchy.

I'm reminded of Yossarian in Catch 22, who was given the task of censoring the letters of enlisted me. Joseph Heller writes:
To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters buta, an and the.
Yossarian would make a great editor.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

If the glove doesn't fit ...

Words matter.
You remember the rest of it ... you must acquit. You remember it because it rhymes.

There is actually a cognitive bias for this phenomenon, the "rhyme as reason" effect. A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment that occurs in particular situations, which may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.

Is O.J. running free today because of this bias?

Wikipedia explains the effect.
In experiments, subjects judged variations of sayings which did and did not rhyme, and tended to evaluate those that rhymed as more truthful (controlled for meaning). For example, the statement "What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals" was judged to be more accurate than by different participants who saw "What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks". 
The effect could be caused by the Keats heuristic, according to which a statement's truth is evaluated according to aesthetic qualities; or the fluency heuristic, according to which things could be preferred due their ease of cognitive processing.
You would, of course, use rhyming rarely. You should liberally obey the fluency heuristic: A fluency heuristic in psychology is a mental heuristic where, if one out of two objects is processed more fluently, faster, or more smoothly, the mind infers that this object has the higher value with respect to the question being considered.