Sunday, April 28, 2013

People lie down, chickens lay eggs

Oh boy, we can blame this one on rock and roll. You know it's wrecked an entire generation. Today let's beat up on Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan.

Let's start with Eric. His song "Lay Down Sally" can actually help you remember the difference between lay and lie, Grammar Girl asserts, because he's wrong.

To say “lay down Sally,” she explains, would imply that someone should grab Sally and lay her down. If he wanted Sally to rest in his arms on her own, the correct line would be “lie down Sally.”

I don't know Sally, but I'm going to suggest that for a generation that went into the Sixties and never fully emerged using an incorrect example might be confusing. Just saying.

Next up, Bob. If you can remember "Lay Lady Lay" you should also try to remember that it, too, is wrong. Of course the Sixties generation has trouble remembering yesterday. The lyrics, Grammar Girl says, should be “Lie lady lie, lie across my big brass bed.” Of course, that sounds like you want her to utter an untruth. Maybe you do.

Ben Yagoda has proved that people are screwing this up.

That's called a "Google fight." I'd never heard of that. Had you? Here's where you do that.

Okay, so let's get back to lie and lay. You're just gonna have to memorize it.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Get your story straight

We make sense of our lives by telling ourselves a story about it. The story makes sense to us, but it can confuse others. It doesn't meet their expectations for behavior.

This can be an issue in our careers when we're moving from one thing to another. In these transitions we need a story to explain ourselves to others.

Many years ago I was in an outplacement program -- meaning I was in a forced transition. One day we spent an hour sitting around a table telling our stories to each other. The tendency in these situations is to say, "I just got fired and I have no idea what's going to happen."

That's true, of course, but not the only truth. For me, a positive truth was easy: "I'm a writer and editor."

This is a marvelous setup. The almost automatic response: "Oh, what do you write?"

Off I go. I can answer that any way I want.

Dorie Clark, a strategy consultant, offers some suggestions for crafting your transition story.
Create a narrative that connects your past and present. A young helicopter pilot in the Army, for example, wanted to enter the world of business. She explained how she managed eight $30 million Apache helicopters and the 30 people who worked them. 
Identify the underlying themes that connect your professional experiences, because people generally prefer narrative continuity: a story is "better" and makes more sense to them if they see it as a logical extension of the past, rather than a rupture. Editing is basically editing, for example, whether its someone's autobiography or book on accounting. 
It's important to explain your trajectory in terms of the value you bring to others. Career transitions can sometimes be viewed as a sign of narcissism or a midlife crisis, and you don't help that perception if you frame it as all about you. "Wanting to be fulfilled" is nice, but it's not a valid reason for others to hand you a job or give you their business. Instead, you need to make it clear it's not about you; it's about the value you bring.
The traditional career progression is pretty confused today, and employers know it, because as individuals they live it, too. Still, they like to hear a good story.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A brief history of punctuation

I don't know about you, but I'm practically anal about punctuation. Over the years I have accumulated a set of rules, some of which I actually follow occasionally. I've also accumulated a set of tools in my basement, some of which I recall having once used.

A tidy little piece by Keith Houston, who by day writes medical visualization software, of all things, reminds me that punctuation didn't always exist, which I can't imagine.

In the end, he writes, even a simple word space, paragraph or full stop carries the weight of centuries of tradition and evolution.
Writing in ancient Greece was broken by neither marks nor spaces. Lines of closely-packed letters ran left to right across the page and back again like a farmer ploughing a field. The sole aid to the reader was the paragraphos, a simple horizontal stroke in the margin that indicated something of interest on the corresponding line. It was up to the reader to work out what, exactly, had been highlighted in this fashion: a change of topic, perhaps; a new stanza in a poem; or a change in speaker in a drama. 
Punctuation itself – literally, the act of adding “points” to a text – did not arrive until the third century BC, when Aristophanes of the great Library at Alexandria described a series of middle (·), low (.) and high points (˙) denoting short, medium and long pauses. Over the centuries, this system gave rise to punctuation as we know it: from Aristophanes’ three dots came the colon, the full stop, and many other marks besides. At the same time the paragraphos evolved into the “pilcrow”, a C-shaped mark (¶) placed at the start of each new section in a text. The word space was a late arrival, appearing only when monks in medieval England and Ireland began splitting apart unfamiliar Latin texts to make them easier to read. 
Then, in the mid-1450s, Gutenberg published his famed 42-line Bible, and everything changed overnight. Spaces, once as wide or as narrow as a scribe chose to make them, begat an extended family of fixed widths, from hair spaces ( ) up to em quads ( ), that printers required to justify lines. Once carefully painted in by hand, pilcrows became too time-consuming to add; left out, their ghostly absences gave rise to the indented paragraph.
So, next time you drop in a comma, realize that you are riding on the backs of giants.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Here's a quick improve for your writing

When I was a cub reporter on the night shift at The AP in New Orleans I'd show up and find notes from my editor about my work the night before.

One evening the note said, "Is 'host' a verb?"

Well, as Hillary said, what does it really matter?

Actually, it's a noun and a verb. But the question was legitimate. One way we can clean up our language -- and make ourselves more easily understood -- is to stop using verbs as nouns. For one thing, it just sounds stupid.
“Do you have a solve for this problem?” “Let’s all focus on the build.” “That’s the take-away from today’s seminar.” Or, to quote a song that was recently a No. 1 hit in Britain, “Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?”
See what I mean?

Henry Hitchings nails it:
If you find these sentences annoying, you are not alone. Each contains an example of nominalization: a word we are used to encountering as a verb or adjective that has been transmuted into a noun. Many of us dislike reading or hearing clusters of such nouns, and associate them with legalese, bureaucracy, corporate jive, advertising or the more hollow kinds of academic prose. Writing packed with nominalizations is commonly regarded as slovenly, obfuscatory, pretentious or merely ugly.
He speculates on why we do this:
Why say “solve” rather than “solution”? One answer is that it gives an impression of freshness, by avoiding an everyday word. To some, “I have a solve” will sound jauntier and more pragmatic than “I have a solution.” It’s also more concise and less obviously Latinate (though the root of “solve” is the Latin solvere).
Well, read his very fine article and just don't do it. And enjoy this:

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Put down your laptop and pick up a pen

Mark Twain demonstrates.
When is the last time you sent a handwritten note on, you know, paper? Or received one?

The Post Office says that the average home received a personal letter only once every seven weeks in 2010, down from once every two weeks in 1987.

What about in business? Are you relying on email "blasts" to reach your customers? So is everybody else. A recent study indicated the average corporate email account sent or received more than 100 emails per day, and Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 nowsend or receive nearly 100 texts per day. What if you did an end run with a piece of paper?

Author John Coleman notes several things about handwritten communication.
  • Handwritten notes mean more because they cost more. Emails, tweets, texts, or Facebook messages are essentially costless.
  • Electronic communications are rarely notable. But handwritten notes are unusual. They take minutes (or hours) to draft, each word carefully chosen with no "undo" or "autocorrect" to fall back on. Drafting one involves selecting stationery, paying for stamps, and visiting a mailbox. They indicate investment, and that very costliness indicates value. 
  • That conveyance of value is amplified by the fact that personal messages are often notes of gratitude, civility, and appreciation that reach beyond the conventional thank-you. Because handwritten notes are so painstakingly slow — to draft, to send, to assure delivery — they're often a poor way to ask for things. Instead, they're more frequently used to remind others that you value your relationship.
  • Handwritten notes have permanence. How many of us have our old high school yearbooks in a closet somewhere? Email is "permanent" in its own way; our electronic messages are easy to keep and search in huge volumes. But they aren't tangible and enduring in the same way those old notes are. We don't print emails and display them on our desks, refrigerators, and mantles they way we do with letters and notes from friends. The physical notes are more memorable.
It has not escaped me that I wrote this post on a screen and that you are reading it on a screen.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Don't abandon paper just yet

Which will it be?
Send an email or publishing an ebook is much easier, quicker and cheaper than using paper. And so we tend to default to digits.

This, I believe, leaves an opening for those who wish to be different and stand out -- by sending an old-fashioned business letter on actual paper.

But is there any real difference in effect? Apparently so. Ferris Jabr, a science journalist and associated editor of Scientific American has a must-read article in that magazine that surveys what we know about reading on paper versus reading on a screen.

For many purposes, paper is still better, he says.
Evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.
Some studies indicate that screens reduce comprehension and long-term memory of what is read. It may be that people take reading on a screen less seriously.

When it comes to intensively reading long pieces of plain text, Jabr concludes, paper and ink may still have the advantage.