Thursday, February 28, 2013

Stop capitalizing everyhing

I come across unnecessary capitalization in business writing all the time.

Often it involves corporate departments, e.g., Human Resources or Finance Department. Sometimes I see only one word capitalized: Finance department. Sometimes these words refer to a specific company's department; sometimes they refer to departments in general.

Sometimes the capitalization seems completely random: the Client or the Regulation.

Capital letters are speed bumps. They slow the eye as it scans across a sentence. So avoid them wherever possible.

Let's start with departments. Proper names, i.e., names of specific things or people, are capitalized. So I suppose "the GE Department of Human Resources" is technically correct. But is it necessary? Not really. The only time you should capitalize a corporate department is when it refers to a specific company's department, and then you want to get the name exactly correct. I would argue, however, that capitalization in that case isn't necessary for meaning.

Now for titles. When they come before a name, they should be capitalized. So: Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Office Joe Blow. But do you see how hard that is to swallow. Better: put the title after the name and don't capitalize it. Joe Blow, chairman of the board and chief executive officer. (Notice I left out "of directors" -- the meaning is clear in the context.)

There are some good capitalization tips at EssayInfo, but you'll notice they favor more capitalization than I do.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Keep it simple, stupid

Siegfried Vogele
We're always told that simple writing is more effective. But exactly how do we write simply? One way is to keep everything short.

Business writing can be creative, but it has work to do, and we should give attention to those who have studied it. One of those researchers is Siegfried Vogele, a direct marketing guru, who taught at the University of Munich and the University of Economics in Vienna. He created the "dialog method" of writing direct mail.

Vogele conducted exhaustive studies of eye movements and discovered a number of rules for effective writing. Among them is the need to use short words and sentences.

So valued is his out-of-print Handbook of Direct Mail that someone is offering a used copy on Amazon for $1,223.86! From that book, here is some guidance that should be work in any setting, direct mail or not.

1. Maximum 15 words per sentence. Put in a full stop after 15 words. It is too late to use a comma.

2. Maximum 30 syllables per sentence is a further limiting factor. Fifteen words and 30 syllables indicates an average use of two-syllable words. This shows you how many single-syllable words you can use if you want to use an essential four- or five-syllable word. In other words, if you use several multi-syllable words in a sentence the maximum sentence length (of 30 syllables) is often achieved with only eight to 10 words.

3. An average of 10 to 12 words in a sentence. The so-called "asthmatic sentences," the half-sentences with one to three words in them, can be used only as bridging elements between the other sentences; otherwise they would break up the "personal dialog." An example of an asthmatic sentence: "XYZ is valid at all times. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow."

4. Only one idea per sentence. 

5. Fewer subordinate clauses and more complete main sentences help the reader understand the text more quickly. Dashes make comprehension more difficult. Commas are suitable only when used with repetition and enumeration; they are not suitable for separating subordinate clauses, which attach secondary ideas to main thoughts.

These guidelines are based on a readability index and are designed to help the reader understand sentences quickly. Hemingway would approve.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Everyone should check their grammar

One monkey.
Consider these sentences:
Every student aced his project. 
Many professors make every student buy their own books.
Everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion.
 Can "they" be singular?

We're certainly trying hard to make it so. This is done so as not to offend women by using "he" to stand for either gender, which is what I learned in school umpteen years ago.

Those of us who don't like "they" being singular try "he or she," or we write around it: All the students aced their projects.

No one is really happy with their solution.

On The Economist's Johnson blog, the estimable Robert Lane Greene throws everything he has into the argument that a singular "they" is okay. Including the fact that Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James translators, Swift, Byron, Austen, Goldsmith, Thackeray, Shaw, Herbert Spencer and others used it that way.

I wouldn't be caught dead in that crowd.

When I wrote for The Associated Press back in the olden days the title "Ms." came into being. Cautious about changing its style rules, The AP instructed us to say "Ms. Woman, who prefers that designation." That is just so awkward that I did anything to avoid it. I preferred to not quote a woman than add that silliness to my poetry.

So I'm going to stick with "they" as a plural, because the alternative just grates on my ear. That's my reason, and I won't hear of anything different.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Do you use made-up words?

It's easy to slip into using "words" that aren't really words. Use one of these with someone who knows better and your reputation slips a bit. Eliminating non-words will give an edge to your writing. Here's a list compiled by Mark Nichol:

1. Administrate: A back-formation of administration and an unnecessary extension of administer

2. Commentate: A back-formation of commentator and an unnecessary extension of comment

3. Dimunition: Erroneous; the correct form is diminution (think of diminutive)

4. Exploitive: A younger, acceptable variant of exploitative

5. Firstly: As with secondly and thirdly, erroneous when enumerating points; use first and so on

6. Heighth: Rarely appears in print, but a frequent error in spoken discourse (Why isn't heightmodeled on the form of depth, length, and width? Because it doesn't shift in spelling and pronunciation from its associated term, tall, like the others, which are derived from deep, long, andwide, do. Neither do we say or write weighth.)

7. Irregardless: An unnecessary extension of regardless on the analogy of irrespective but ignoring that regardless, though it is not an antonym of regard, already has an antonymic affix

8. Miniscule: A common variant of minuscule, but widely considered erroneous

9. Orientate: A back-formation of orientation and an unnecessary extension of orient

10. Participator: Erroneous; the correct form is participant

11. Preventative: A common and acceptable variant of preventive

12. Societal: A variant of social with a distinct connotation (for example, "social occasion," but "societal trends")

13. Supposably: An erroneous variant of supposedly

14. 'Til: Also rendered til and till, an clipped form of until that is correct but informal English; use the full word except in colloquial usage

15. Undoubtably: An erroneous variant of undoubtedly

What's funny is that the spell checker on my blogging software didn't catch half of these.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A sentence designed for the reader

“Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, 
that is the last you are going to see of him until he emerges 
on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.”
-- Mark Twain

The two previous posts explored the active voice and keeping the subject and verb close together. Let's combine those two rules to see what they do for clarity.

Try this sentence on for size.
The notion that our company’s critical infrastructures are highly interconnected and mutually dependent in complex ways, both physically and through a host of information and communication technologies (so-called “cyber-based systems”), is more than an abstract, theoretical concept.
The kind of stuff that makes you tired before the day is half over, right?

So let's look at a rewrite by Ed Barr, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Our company’s critical infrastructures depend on each other greatly. They are highly interconnected and mutually dependent in complex ways, through a host of information and communication technologies (so-called “cyber-based systems”) and through physical interconnectedness.
Still boring, but now you understand it. Barr's analysis:
How many words separate the Subject ("notion") from the Verb ("is") in the example sentence above? 28!! Yep, 28 words separate the Subject from the Verb. If the reader wants to know what is being affirmed (the Verb) about whom (the Subject), the reader (you) will have a helluva time figuring it out.
You may still not prefer my revised sentence for a variety of reasons; for example, you might say it uses too many multi-syllable words (and it does) and it uses some technical language. Nonetheless, you should be able to grasp its meaning more readily because in the new sentence the Subject “infrastructures” and the Verb “depend” sit next to each other. (I have also changed the sentence to active voice and split it into two sentences.) But, note: when you keep the Subject and Verb close together, readers will have essential information and an essential understanding of the sentence. Therefore, when you write, examine the first few words of all your sentences to look for the Subject and Verb.
I hope, of course, that you aren't reading this, thus depriving me of a potential revenue stream. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Keep your subject and verb close

Together forever.
A simple way to add clarity to your writing is to keep the subject and verb of a sentence close together. When they are separated by a lot of other words, readers have to hunt for the words that belong together. This can be especially confusing if the extra words include other verbs. 
Bad.  Good writers, no matter how much they like to interrupt themselves with a verbal diversion, imagine a magnet between subject and verb. 
Good.  Good writers imagine a magnet between subject and verb, no matter how much they like to interrupt themselves with a verbal diversion.
Here's another example, this one from, ironically, the federal government.
The natural word order of an English sentence is subject-verb-object. This is how you first learned to write sentences, and it's still the best. When you put modifiers, phrases, or clauses between two or all three of these essential parts, you make it harder for the user to understand you. 
Consider this long, convoluted sentence: 
If any member of the board retires, the company, at the discretion of the board, and after notice from the chairman of the board to all the members of the board at least 30 days before executing this option, may buy, and the retiring member must sell, the member's interest in the company. 
In essence, the sentence says: The company may buy a retiring member's interest. All the rest of the material modifies the basic idea, and should be moved to another sentence or at least to the end of the sentence.  
Remember boys and girls, Big Brother is watching you write.