Friday, August 15, 2008

Oh, the horror!

Joseph Califano Jr. leaps atop the language of Wall of Shame this morning in an article about kids raiding their parents' medicine cabinets to steal prescription drugs. Said he, in a statement:
Many problem parents become passive pushers by leaving abusable and addictive prescription drugs, like their painkillers OxyContin and Vicodin, around the house, making them easily available to their children.
Since Califano's organization, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, is located at Columbia University, I won't be passive about pushing this link to its English department faculty in case he has a hankerin' to double-check his language before his next public pronouncement.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Where have all the editors gone?

Sports writer Dave Albee writing in this morning's Marin IJ on local rower Mike Altman in the Olympics:

IN ROWING, the focus usually comes from within rather than from outside visuals. That's how it is when your back is always turned away from the finish line.

Funny, I thought in rowing your back was always facing the finish line.

S.F. Chronicle Science writer David Perlman had his own problems today. He wrote about rampant rumors of cover-ups over Mars research:

The latest heady rumor: that the spacecraft Phoenix now analyzing soil and ice on the arctic plains of Mars had discovered chemicals so startling and so relevant to the search for life on the Red Planet that the White House and the president's science advisers have been secretly briefed, even though NASA would not share the information with the public.

The logical structure of the last clause doesn't work. NASA's not sharing information with the public isn't at odds with the White House having a secret briefing. They're part and parcel of the same thing.

To the two Davids: We're concerned about your copy desks, but the good news is we're still reading.
(As for the photo, it's a beauty, and it's from a fine photographer, Kevin Sargent)

Monday, July 28, 2008

(A) wanker

In British slang, a wanker is a pejorative term for someone who plays with himself or is a detestable person.
One example would be Giles Coren, a restaurant reviewer in England, who went ballistic on newspaper copy editors ("subs" as they're called) for removing the article "a" from one of his reviews.
He picks it up from here, in all his foul-mouthed, verbose petulance. At the end of the day, he has a point that the deletion of that single letter ruined a good double entendre. But, really Giles, is it worth vaulting yourself into the modern Pantheon of jackasses to make a point? I guess it is.

(Tip of the fountain pen to my old colleague Paul Dempsey for the article reference).

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Perils of automation

By Jacqueline Damian

I’m indebted to my former boss, Greg Lupion, for finding this one:

It seems a Christian news site outsmarted itself by programming its software to automatically change the word “gay” in any copy to “homosexual.” Thus, as reported by a Washington Post blogger, Olympic hopeful Tyson Gay became Tyson Homosexual on the site. Oops.

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” by Marvin Who?

Monday, June 30, 2008


Gobbledygook means language characterized by circumlocution or jargon. The word seems to originated, according to Webster's, between 1940-45, which makes sense because World War II was in full swing, and the military is famous for gobbledygook.
David Meerman Scott writes this morning that authorities in England and Wales are trying to end its life span here and now. Across the pond, the Local Government Association is urging governmental officials to junk jargon.
Said LGA Chairman Sir Simon Milton:
"The public sector can not, must not and should not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases. Why do we have to have 'coterminous, stakeholder engagement' when we could just 'talk to people' instead?"

(Would you expect anything else from a Milton? Paradise may yet be regained!)
The list includes: coterminous, empowerment, stakeholder, slippage, synergies and best practice. If these were outlawed in the United States, business communications might come to a crashing halt.
My ex-EE Times colleague Alex Wolfe suggests actor William Shatner is changing careers...radically.
His new autobiography is titled "Up Till Now," which suggests Shatner is telegraphing a move into farming. It's discouraging to see a book--presumably reviewed by editors--titled in thus, when it should be "Up 'Til Now."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What's in aName?

By Jacqueline Damian

My home state of Rhode Island is known for its colorful political characters, most famously Buddy Cianci, a former Providence mayor, convicted felon and pasta sauce purveyor (under the “Mayor’s Own” brand). Lesser known but no less zany were a couple of politicians who tweaked their names to better their election odds.

Back in the 1960s, Mario Russillo added a small “a” to the front of his surname to gain the top ballot spot in the race for town administrator, in the days when primary candidates were listed alphabetically. When challenged in a subsequent primary by a man who overtly stole his strategy, styling himself as Ralph aRusso, he simply tacked on a second “a,” becoming Mario aaRussillo. Note: he won both times.

We laughed at the time, but in retrospect, these guys seem prescient. Sticking a lowercase vowel onto a proper name has become a 21st century verbal tic.

First came “e,” as in e-mail, e-card, e-vite, e-paper and, of course, eBay, the bane of copy desks across America. (What do you do when the company name starts a sentence? I’ve seen EBay and Ebay in print, while some editors cave and just run with eBay, tossing out the rule that a sentence must begin with a capital letter.)

Next came “i,” for iPod and iPhone and a bunch of others. Whereas the “e” in e-mail and its kin stands for something comprehensible (electronic), it’s a little less clear just what the “i” means. Information? Internet? Or, as our nephew David said as he showed off his iPhone for us last night, plain old “I,” as in me, personally, like the Beatles’ song “I, Me, Mine”? How ironic, though, to take the proud capital I of the personal pronoun and knock it down to mini size.

Moving down the vowel list, I’ve seen the occasional lowercase “u” stuck in front of a word -- a product name, say -- in the context of the electronics industry. To the engineering community, it stands for the Greek mu, which is used to signify “micron.”

With all the other vowels pressed into service in one way or another, can “o” be far behind? Something along the lines of might be a place to start.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Impact's effect

By Jacqueline Damian

When is a noun not a noun? When it’s pressed into service as a verb, of course – like the word impact, verbified by (I suspect) lazy writers flummoxed by the intricacies of effect and affect. How much easier to sidestep the whole problem by just using impact.

Turning a noun into a verb is nothing new in the English language, of course. Think picnic and picnic, to cite just one example appropriate to the season. But it seems as if suddenly I’m spotting this trend everywhere -- and it’s not always a pretty sight.

First there was a CEO’s use of the term “scholarshiping” in a Newsweek column about corporate-sponsored (and sometimes questionable) student aid. “ ‘Scholarshiping sends a positive message, one of good will,’ says Brickfish CEO Brian Dunn.” Ugh! Are busy execs so pressed for time that they must opt for one word, albeit bogus, instead of two legitimate ones? Is it really so much harder to say that “giving scholarships sends a positive message”?

The following week Newsweek delivered another example when Steven Levy, my favorite technology writer, repeatedly used the word “friend” as a verb in a column about social-networking sites. Now, Levy can write. Specifically, he can write comprehensibly and entertainingly about technology, something that eludes many, if not most, tech beat reporters.

So why did he have to say things like “While Facebook doesn’t want to dictate rules of friending behavior to its users…” and “One MySpace exec has even surprised himself by friending a potato,” when there’s a perfectly good English word that would do the job? Is befriending too old-fashioned?

Levy might be excused for simply repeating a term that’s widely used in the industry he covers. But how to explain the doctor interviewed about the 1918 flu pandemic on the PBS series American Experience? Speaking about strategies for containing the virus, she opined that “you can’t barrier yourself from being exposed.” Let’s be kind and assume she meant barricade.

Then, in the June 16 issue of Newsweek, biology teacher Sally G. Hoskins turned it all around. In “My Turn,” a column of reader-submitted essays, Hoskins wrote of her frustrations in trying to get kids fired up about biology. At one point, to underscore the subject's urgency, she had her students imagine what would happen if they were laid low by a dread disease.

“In the event that the doctor has two minutes to discuss the situation and to describe the biology underlying the disease so that you can look up clinical trials,” she told them, “you are going to need to know what a cell is and how disease can impact it.”

Ugh, there we go again, with impact as a verb. This is one battle that’s long been lost. But wait:

“It was a pretty good rant,” Hoskins confides, “aside from my use of ‘impact’ as a verb.”

Bingo! Now, there’s a woman after my own heart.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The medium really is the message

Note: I hectored my former EE Times editorial colleague Jackie Damian into contributing her insights to Big Red Pencil. Herewith, her first entry!

By Jackie Damian

Everyone who writes – no wait, let’s make that everyone who reads (in other words, everyone) – should hie over to The Atlantic site and check out the July/August cover story, titled “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?
Author Nicholas Carr pretty much answers that not-so-rhetorical question with a resounding yes, describing how the Internet – in the way it delivers quick snippets of info and discourages concentrated reading – is actually reshaping our brains and the way we think. “Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged,” Carr writes. He cites both anecdotal evidence from bloggers who can’t concentrate on any articles longer than a few paragraphs, to research on neural information processing: This is your brain on Google.

Conspiracy theorists, take note:

“The faster we surf across the Web – the more links we click and pages we view – the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link – the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interests to drive us to distraction.”

Perhaps the most subversive thing anyone who loves the written word could do this summer, therefore, would be to put away the laptop and open "Ulysses."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Oh so trendy

I returned today from a vacation of relaxin', readin' (Mark Helprin's "A Soldier of the Great War," for the second time) and writin' (notes for a novel that's beginning to congeal in my soupy head) to discover the editing business still needs editors.
I Googled the phrase "passing fad" to find 345,000 citations. That means that 345,000 times some writer didn't care enough to think before putting fingers to keyboard. While not strictly redundant, the word "fad" means a "temporary fashion," so a fad is, by definition, passing. Would that we should think as much before writing as we do before stepping off a city curb. By the way, I was moved to this demi-diatribe by a Moira Herbst's BusinessWeek article: Energy Efficiency: A Passing Fad?
On a different note, I've enlisted the help of a longtime editorial colleague of mine, Jackie Damian, to contribute to this blog from time to time. (I'd love for it to be daily, but she does have a real life!) Jackie is one of the finest editors I've ever worked with. I've seen her transform the unintelligible into the articulate and the workable into the insightful. Her first contribution comes later this week.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rita Moreno for president

College commencement speeches can be thumb-suckers highlighted by the occasional paper airplane drifting over bored, enrobed graduates. Rita Moreno, however, struck a blow for righteousness this weekend with her speech at Mills College in the East Bay. The only problem is the speech probably should have been given as the Class of 2008 entered Mills, rather than exited.

How we look is a matter of personal preference and is really rather easy to deal with, but — language, language — which is so central and important to one’s success is too often sorely lacking.

I am constantly saddened and dismayed by the way in which we have come to torture the English language. ... College students who use the term “he goes” in place of “he says” and whose sentences are riddled with “you know?” and who cannot complete a sentence without inserting the word “like” at least three times. ... My advice: Stop it this minute.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Write well, spell correctly, lawyer urges

Lawyers are often criticized for arcane and convoluted language. Not Andrew Berry (left), chairman of McCarter & English in Newark, N.J. He's interviewed in The Wall Street Journal Law Blog about the importance of clear writing and avoiding typographical errors. Says he:
“Do not ever for the second time give your senior (lawyer) a piece of writing with a typo or a grammatical mistake.”
Such errors, he says, derail the lawyer's stock in trade: A smooth train of thought.
In addition, Berry urges young lawyers to read Antonin Scalia's new book on advocacy, especially the parts about the importance of writing well.
The dynamics of today's communications (IM, email, Twitter, Plurk, Facebook, text-messaging) augur against this, but Berry and the rest of us can dream, can't we??

Monday, June 2, 2008

Word of the Day: Guerdon

n. A reward, recompense or requital. (As a verb, to reward).

The word has several Middle English derivations, all of which probably come from the Latin donum, or gift, according to Webster's Unabridged.
You're probably wondering why guerdon shouldn't have a more martial meaning, with similar words like guerilla. That's because those ME derivations include a variation of widar, to give back.
Guerdon is what Sameer Mishra (left) spelled to win the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington last Friday. For winning, his guerdon includes $35,000 and a $2,500 savings bond. Not bad for getting your letters right.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bad grammar "Eccos" relentlessly

Ecco makes pretty good shoes. Their ad agencies writes pretty painful ad copy.
From the recent "My World My Style" print and online campaign:
"I will spend the entire day just walking on my feet. So for my shoes, comfort and styles have to go hand and hand. My Ecco is Yucatan."
Do advertising agencies no longer employ copy editors? Does the "feel" of the copy outweigh the value of the words that produces it?
"I will spend the entire day just walking on my feet"...???? As opposed to.... your hands?? That would be quite a feat!
And less obvious but still grating: "comfort and styles have to go hand and hand." I get it, but when the product is shoes, isn't there a better simile??

Friday, May 16, 2008

Word of the Day

Tergiversate: (v) to change repeatedly one's attitudes or opinions.
From the Latin tergiversatus, to turn one's back.

I haven't come across that word ever, and it's a beauty. Found it Joe Queenan's Wall Street Journal op-ed today on, who else? Hillary Clinton. Fits like a glove.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Say what you mean

Writing functions both as a spotlight and as a shield. It you want it to function as the former, it's important to strip out all ambiguity from your sentences, otherwise it's simply a waste of everyone's time.
Take Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's less-than-encouraging quotation this week about the financial markets:
"I do believe that the worst is likely to be behind us."

That came from a Wall Street Journal story, headlined: "Paulson Sees Financial Turmoil Abating." His quotation, however, says nothing of the sort. It's "likely." His quote says, to me, "maybe we're coming out of it; maybe not."
If he really means to say the financial turmoil is easing, he'd have said: "The worst is behind us."
It's unsettling--when so many of us are unsettled that we haven't hit bottom--that the secretary of the treasury is unsure.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Jury rig

There's nothing like the wide-open spaces in the mountains to give one a chance to improvise when needed. I spent this weekend with (left to right) my buddy, Pat, my son, Malcolm, and my brother, Kirk, fixing a major problem near our cabin in the Coast Range. You can see a newly graded road running across the creek and out of the picture. That's on our absentee neighbor's property, up the creek from our place. That road hasn't been graded--or used much--since the 1970s, and the creek's comings and goings over the succeeding decades has made the creek ford impossible. It's not an important road, so no biggie. But they graded it this spring, which is nice. Except when that grading rips through your water supply line buried under the road.
To make a long story short, I asked the guy to dig us a trench so we could fix the situation, but he hasn't been back up, so we had to act to get in water for the summer (our barrel is a quarter-mile hike upstream from here).
So we dug. And dug. It's gravel--not easily worked. We dug as much as we could, and then, to protect the PVC line, we hauled an old iron pipe down the creek to slide over the PVC section to protect it (while buried) from trucks rolling over.
It wasn't pretty, but it'll get the job done.
That's the definition of jury rigging (not to be confused with bribing jurors to help one's client).
While now used to describe anything that's makeshift or temporary, it originally was used to describe the replacement of mast and yards in case of damage.
In our case, jury rigging was more fun, as they say, than humans should be allowed to have while standing.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Stating the obvious

Often in covering tragic and dramatic news stories, reporters get carried away and lose their writing discipline. Such was the case with last week's shark attack off Solana Beach, Calif., that killed triathlete David Martin.
Witnesses said he was lifted vertically out of the water by the creature, which retreated after a single bite.
My son, reading the story, caught the error: "lifted vertically." To lift means to raise, and the last time I checked, raising is a vertical movement.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The sentence is imperiled: Pew Study

The Pew Research Center is out with a study this week about writing and teens. There's good news and bad news. The good news is teens write more today than older generations. The bad news from "Writing Technology and Teens:" emoticons and abbreviations threaten the sentence. The study quotes James Billington, the Librarian of Congress:
Young Americans' electronic communication might be damaging "the basic unit of human thought -- the sentence."
Some highlights from the report:
  • 93% of teens say they write for their own pleasure. FOR THEIR OWN PLEASURE. WOW!
  • The impact of technology on writing is hardly a frivolous issue because most believe that good writing is important to teens' future success.
  • Teens more often write by hand for both out-of-school writing and school work.
  • Teens believe that the writing instruction they receive in school could be improved. (OR, MIGHT WE SUGGEST, SUPPLEMENTED BY A CERTAIN WRITING BLOG...)
An Associated Press dispatch about "Writing Technology and Teens" focused on the impact that technology (IM and text-messaging for example) are having on formal writing.
"It's a teachable moment," said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew. "If you find that in a child's or student's writing, that's an opportunity to address the differences between formal and informal writing. They learn to make the distinction ... just as they learn not to use slang terms in formal writing."
"Writing Technology and Teens" doesn't delve into what defines formal writing. Some would say it needs to cover all communications, from email to memos to proposals to contributed articles. Some might argue that different styles fit different forms. I fall into the latter camp.
I think the bigger problem is that the time pressures on everyone in the work place (at least the American work place) are hurting good writing just as much as technology may. It takes time to formulate a coherent thought and then communicate it. If we keep that in mind, we'll be fine. If we continue down our increasingly manic work-environment path, we'll be in trouble.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Word of the Day

Don't know where he finds 'em, but he does. Oregon's favorite adopted son, Mr. B. Santo, forwards:

: granular snow pellets —called also soft hail

In Webster's, it appears derived from the Greek Graupel for hulled grain, which is coincidental since I spent last night reading about malting barley and the joys of the decoction mash in brewing.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Batter up

The first month of the 2008 Major League Baseball season is nearly in the bag, and that calls for some reflection. I was driving somewhere this weekend, listening to the Giants' game, when my wife made an insightful remark (not unusual). Why, she asked, do they say he "flied out" when a ballplayer hits a fly ball that is caught by a fielder? Shouldn't it be flew out? Good question. doesn't even mention it, instead defining "to fly out" as

To rush out. To burst into a passion.

Occasionally, you'll hear a broadcaster use "flew out," but not often. It's all the more surprising as it's common to hear a broadcaster describe a long home run by saying "that ball just flew out of here!" (We're not hearing this too frequently this season with the Giants, but that's another story).
The other faux pas that all broadcasters make is the use of the acronym for runs batted in (RBI). "A-Rod has three RBIs today," a broadcaster might say. In fact, the plural needs to be RBI (runs batted in). And then you'll hear newbies exclaim "It's gone! A grand slam home run!" Usually, their more experienced microphone partners will take them aside and gently remind them that a grand slam by definition is a home run.
Such are the things I ponder when my team is forecast to lose 100 games this season.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Good news, bad news

The bad news is that California kids need to improve their writing skills. The good news is that those of us who make a living with words don't have to worry about job security any time soon.
Just a quarter of the state's eight-graders scored at grade level in writing. New Jersey has the nation's best young writers.

California students have improved, however. The writing test was last administered in 2002, when 23 percent of the state's students scored at grade level. In 1998, 20 percent did as well.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


I had a rare chance to listen to the broadcast version of Michael Krasny's "Forum" program no KQED radio today as I drove down to Silicon Valley for an interview. On it, he hosted author and journalist Marilee Strong of Oakland, who has written a book "Erased: Missing Women, Murdered Wives."
Really interesting interview that you can hear here. Really annoying use of the verb "disappeared."
As in: "When he disappeared his wife." I have never heard this construction in my life, and it sounds wretched. But the dictionary allows disappear to be a transitive verb, meaning it can take an object.

v. tr.
To cause (someone) to disappear, especially by kidnapping or murder.


I don't know. It still makes me feel creepy saying it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

On writing

I could be wrong about this, but I doubt it. (I once gave my dad a Father's Day card that had that sentiment). Email and IM and the immediacy they introduce into our lives are enabling people to write lousy sentences.
It's not just that email and IM are fast, throw-away forms of communication. They encourage fragmented thoughts (splash something out, hit send, move on to the next message or task).
In this world, prepositions grow like kudzu. They lengthen sentences, bore the reader and obscure meaning.
Write actively, not passively. Show your writing who's boss.

I came across this construction this week:
One of the key learning’s I want to start off by highlighting is never pretend to be something you’re not online.
That's what we get paid the big bucks for.

Sentences should be constructed in such a way that the reader is almost forced to stick with it from beginning to end--the way you roll down a grassy hill. For the reader, it should be effortless.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Word of the Day

It's study hall at home tonight--quiet and peaceful. My wife is reading "Tortilla Curtain," written by T.C. Boyle.
She comes across one of those words you love but are usually too lazy to look up:

It means a walk or traverse, although it sounds like it should mean something a lot more complex, like the act of staring at a subway map in a foreign land trying to figure out where to go. It's obviously related to peregrine, which means "having a tendency to wander" and is a type of falcon (Falco peregrinus).
The Latin root, peregrinus, means pilgrim.
And with that, it's time to fly.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Quote of the day

From Joshua Rosner, managing director at Graham Fisher & Co., on the current financial meltdown:
"We haven't had a full gut check of truth-telling."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Headline of the day

San Francisco Chronicle, Food Section:

Tripe lovers
reveal their
offal secrets

Didn't even need a squeeze to fit the one column.
If you're an offal fan, read on.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Eliot Spitzer and the language of shock

Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York is in very hot water after the New York Times linked him to a high-priced prostitution ring. Keith L. T. Wright, a Democratic assemblyman from Harlem, said it most entertainingly when he tried to describe the news' affect on Albany:
“We’re at a total standstill. Everybody is stunned. Everybody is absolutely stunned.”

Unequivocally. Absolutely. Totally. Darn tootin'.

I hustled to the dictionary to understand the difference between a prostitute and a call girl, having come in contact with neither during my lifetime. (Honest). Prostitute is the umbrella term. It defines a woman who has sexual intercourse for money. Its root is the Latin prostituere, meaning to expose for sale. There's also the variant statuere, which is to cause to stand. And I'll let that stand right there.

A call girl is a prostitute with whom an appointment can be made by telephone. In America in the 1930s it was also used to describe a prostitute who could be called upon at a brothel, but that description has fallen out of favor. Today call girls are generally more expensive prostitutes favored by wealthy businessmen, athletes and, um, politicians who are trying to be discreet.
Doesn't always work out that way, however.

Friday, March 7, 2008

It's personal...or not

Screw up your pronouns, and you can look naked as a writer:

“Today’s savvy marketers are quickly realizing that viewing the customer as merely a target is a critical mistake. In fact, referring to the people that consume their products as anything other than people, is a mistake.”

And writing about people with a pronoun other than “who” is a mistake as well.

Onward... into new-word hell:

Onboarding: " the case of onboarding (adding a new hire)."

In some organizations, I hear this process can be as painful as waterboarding.

Trialing: "Advertisers have been willing to trial these products." It's trial to come across these constructions, but it's what I get paid the big bucks for!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Coffehouse words

Many writers tend to jump on trendy words as quickly as they do trendy food and cocktails. Usually they do so without understanding the meaning. Abused about as badly as Michael Vick 's dogs is word "ironic." It's been hip for years, and it continues to be hip. Like cockroaches, I suspect, it will survive nuclear war. It's a word you pick up in college coffee houses, listening to your English major friends chat about Proust. It sounds intellectual. Most college graduates stagger out into the world having forgotten most of what they learned in school save for precious words such as ironic. They use such words liberally to erase any suspicion among strangers that they forged their diplomas.

Today, an otherwise insightful column from Mediapost, began this way:

I'M WRITING THIS COLUMN FROM the office of a Facebook Friend, ironically enough, as there was a building collapse in Harlem this afternoon that has canceled all train service out of Grand Central for the foreseeable future. Who knows when I might see the home office again?

A tough situation to be sure, but not ironic. Irony conveys meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning. It might be ironic (or just plain bizarre) if the writer were typing from the office of the building that collapsed, but that's not the case.

So think about those coffee-house words before you employ them.

Onward... another day's worth of redundancies

Integral part: Integral means "part of" something.
End result: A result is the end of a process.
Irrefutable facts: A fact is something that exists, that is reality. Unless you're channeling Descartes, facts aren't refutable. (While we're at it, you might want to use "refutable" where applicable rather than "irrefutable." The latter is in the dictionary, but means the same thing--and the former's 1505-1515 origin beats the latter by a century).
Contributing factor: Factor: 1. one of the elements contributing to a particular result or situation.

Monday, March 3, 2008

National idiom shortage

You think the economy's in bad shape? Check out a Page 1 Onion story in the current edition.
Since beginning two weeks ago, the deficit in these vernacular phrases has affected nearly every English speaker on the continent, making it virtually impossible to communicate symbolic ideas through a series of words that do not individually share the same meaning as the group of words as a whole. In what many are calling a cast-iron piano tune unlike any on record, idiomatic expression has been devastated nationwide.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

More on Buckley

From today's Wall Street Journal excerpts of the late William F. Buckley's writing and speeches:
"I am lapidary but not eristic when I use big words."

Lapidary: "Characterized by an exactitude and extreme refinement that suggests gem cutting."

(ME lapidarius, relating to stone cutting).

Eristic: "Pertaining to controversy or disputation."

Derived from the Greek eristikos, eris meaning discord.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Death of a sesquipedalian writer

William F. Buckley Jr., who for decades warmed my father's heart and chilled the necks of liberals, died today at 82. Died at his desk. Died writing a column.
The New York Times' headline must have Buckley raising a heavenly martini in toast:

William F. Buckley Jr., 82, Dies; Sesquipedalian Spark of Right

The Times indirectly defined that fabulous word we learned as kids when it made reference to Buckley's use of "ten-dollar words."

On writing

Roy Peter Clark at Poynter has an interview this week with legendary sports writer Frank Deford, famous for his work, among other places, at short-lived The National (I have a copy of the last issue) and at Sports Illustrated.

The interview got me thinking about writing techniques. Deford has a couple of good ones:

· He types his written notes to get a sense for what he has, doesn’t have and needs to get.

· He uses colored paper to block out chunks of his stories (the historical background on blue, for instance).

· And if he has writer’s block (I’ll dedicate a post to this at a later date), he just starts somewhere and works from there (say in the middle and writes to the end and then figures out the top).

Writing in business is straightforward: You’re trying to communicate simple messages effectively; not elaborate on chaos theory. There’s always a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning is what you’re going to say; the middle is what you want to say; and the end is recapping what you just said.

Visualizing that structure is relatively simple.

Deford’s techniques (and others) are effective on much more complex writing projects. The most valuable book I ever read on writing is “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William Blundell, a onetime editor for The Wall Street Journal. Blundell taught me to use 3x5 index cards to frame both major and minor points, including quotes. You can then lay the cards out in front of you, pushing them around to where they best work.

Adopting outline and prep techniques like Blundell’s or Deford’s make the act of sitting down at your laptop to write much less daunting.

Monday, February 25, 2008

An abundance of fodder

Andy Kessler, who wrote "How We Got Here," is one of my favorite business columnists. I catch him in The Wall Street Journal whenever he makes it onto the op-ed page. Today, he has a column titled "Internet Wrecking Ball," about the so-called "net-neutrality" issue.
I call out a couple of minor boo-boos (not to pick on Kessler but because I've got to post an item, and a bird in the hand is twittering at me):

"I personally would climb telephone poles on my street..." If you're doing the climbing, Andy, you can't outsource it. It's going to be personal.

"Yes, despite an overabundance..." (Part of the definition of the word abundance is "oversufficient quantity or supply," so overabundance is overly oversufficient and going over-over the top. But aha! you say, as if you've lured me into a rusty bear trap that has snapped violently around my ankle: Why, then, is the word overabundance in the dictionary? Because smart people who write dictionaries sometimes screw up.
Can you use overabundance? Sure. You can use colloquialisms too. But my point is: edit paranoid. The more critically you look at every word, the more you will whittle your copy into cogent prose and communicate clearer thought.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Word of the day: Skintle

(′skint·əl) (civil engineering) To set bricks in an irregular fashion so that they are out of alignment with the face by ¼ inch (6 millimeters) or more.

This word is fairly new because it's not in Webster's Unabridged, even in the new-word section. Tip of the cap to Brian "Wretch" Santo for calling this out. His house is apparently one of only a few in his city that's skintled.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

From where I sit...

Before satellites and infrared technologies, sight was a major advantage in hunting, military campaigns and pioneering, to name a few.
I came across the construction today: "From my vantage point, it appears...."
Since vantage means "a position, condition or place affording...a commanding view," vantage point is redundant.

As is...
"Entirely new." That came from the same contributed piece I reviewed.

In an analyst report, I encountered this sentence:
"Having generated clear success on the public Internet, the question becomes whether or not these tools add business value."
Aside from the "public Internet" (because I have yet to come across the private Internet), the construction, while common, is nevertheless weird. It should be "xxx the question is 'do these tools add business value.?'"
"xxxthe issue becomes whether these tools add business value." (whether or not is just lazy grammar).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Period As Statement

Women's Wear Daily reports today that The Wall Street Journal 's planned magazine, Pursuits, which is scheduled to launch in September, has been renamed WSJ. (That's W S J period). WWD quoted a Journal spokesman as saying:

"The three letters happen to be typographically quite pleasing. And its simplicity gives us enormous flexibility visually and semantically."
I haven't been able to track down the font yet, but it's worth noting that down to the period used WSJ., it's different from than The Wall Street Journal masthead type font. That style is Escrow, designed by Cyrus Highsmith, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. Tomaso Capuano, who designed the quarterly Times of London supplement, Times Luxx, is designing WSJ.
In an era in which video rules our lives, words are devalued and typography seems quainter than quill pens, this is a fabulous story. The Journal, in fact, always has placed a premium on typography since the paper until relatively recently was text heavy, black and white and ran few graphics. And to my knowledge, The Journal is the only newspaper in North America that puts a period at the end of its name.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Many, Multiple and Myriad

In writing, people tend to hunt for $10 words when the nickel version works. "Many" is just one of those words. Like an old sweater, reach for it when you need it. Often, in an attempt to sound more serious or professorial, people will use "multiple." It's fine, but I'm not crazy about it. It reminds me of math class.
Then there are times when writers drop back in the pocket, look down field and go for the long bomb: "Myriad."
It's a good word, although it can sound a little pompous, but, hey, sometimes it's good to thrown down like that. It's almost always misused in a sentence: "...the result of a myriad of factors."
That's essentially saying "it's the result of a lot of a lot factors."
Proper grammar, for instance as an adjective, would be "There are myriad reasons the Giants will lose 100 games this season, but we can start with the starting nine."

It's a noun and an adjective meaning a very great or indefinitely great number of things. It's from the Latin myria, meaning 10,000.


A couple of recent updates to the AP Stylebook online:


A person of Asian birth or descent who lives in the U.S. When possible, refer to a person's country of origin. For example: Filipino-American or Indian-American. Follow the person's preference. See nationalities and race, and race entries.

heart attack, heart failure, cardiac arrest

A heart attack (myocardial infarction) occurs when one or more arteries supplying blood to the heart becomes blocked. Heart failure is a chronic condition that occurs when a weakened heart can no longer effectively pump blood. Cardiac arrest, or sudden cardiac arrest, occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating. It can be due to a heart attack, a heart rhythm problem, or as a result of electrocution or other trauma.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Word of the day: Imputrescible

On the "other" blog I wrote, in part, about the joys of serendipity that the printed word has over digital. Such was the case the other day when I was searching for the definition of a word and stumbled across imputrescible.

adj. not liable to decomposition or putrefaction; incorruptible.
It's from the Latin putresc(ere), to grow rotten.

Example? The last thing one could characterize Roger Clemens' testimony before Congress this week was that it was imputrescible.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Warning: Crocodiles ahead

My favorite author is Mark Helprin ("A Solider of the Great War" etc.). He tells soaring stories with pristine, precise prose that works its way into every pore of your soul. What got me hooked years ago was the fact that Helprin's prose -- his fiction -- is relentlessly optimistic, and not cheesily so. His writing made me realize I could slink through life as a cynic, or I could pilot along optimistically. Indeed, even in the darkest moments, there is life if you choose to see it.
He's a conservative columnist, and he writes (too infrequently) for The Wall Street Journal. Today he penned a winner: "McCain and the Talk-Show Hosts," a piece that finally took to task the jabbering jackasses of the jaw-jockey circuit.
His last words were priceless as he described: the "relentlessly crocodilian Ann Coulter." Most of us would labor for a day or more coming up with that description. For Helprin, no doubt, it flowed effortlessly. Man, if I could write like that..........


"5 a.m. in the morning." That's what a.m. is: the morning. It's bad enough to be awake at that hour, let alone emphasize the point redundantly. A.M.=Ante Meridiem, or before noon in Latin. (Without the periods, of course, it means amplitude modulation, a form of radio wave, which, coincidentally, carries many of the jabbering jackasses of the jaw-jockey circuit.)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Bad writing can be good

Yes, indeed, bad writing can be good. And entertaining. There used to be, yes once and perhaps still, a contest. A glorious contest. It celebrated the writing of Ernest Hemingway. His brevity. And style.
It was called the Bad Hemingway competition. Books were written about it. Articles too. Some very funny. Painfully so.
But as with writing in general, the competition seems to have dried up. Like a tomato in the hot Spanish sun. So too interest in the Big Man.
Maybe Papa got a bum rap.
Then again, maybe he should have read more Bernard Malamud.
The opening sentence from Malamud's book, "The Natural," which bore only a faint resemblance to the movie:

Roy Hobbs pawed at the glass before thinking to prick a match with his thumbnail and hold the spurting flame in his cupped palm close to the lower berth window, but by then he had figured it was a tunnel they were passing through and was no longer surprised at the bright sight of himself holding a yellow light over his head, peering back in.
As far as I know, there have never been any Bad Malamud contests.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme

Kimberley Strassel's "Potomac Watch" column in today's Wall Street Journal is an interesting read, if you're looking for insight into why Democrats, with a fabulous chance to take back the White House, continue to eat their own. But she writes, referencing an Obama policy plank:

"It's a good bet his success was in part due to his promise to not garnish their wages to pay for policies."
First, there's the split infinitive: "to not garnish." More importantly there's the misuse of of the verb "garnish." Back in the day, when I worked for UPI, if anyone wrote "garnish wages," the old-timers in the newsroom would howl with laughter and ask whether that would be with parsley or a lemon wedge. The proper verb is garnishee (to attach money or property), and here's hoping that never happens to you!
Upon further review, though, Webster's Unabridged allows that definition for "garnish," which must have been added since the days of our newsroom nitpicks.
In any case, stick with garnishee because it's a great zinger at a cocktail party, and it will be all but impossible for the person you correct to pull out Webster's Unabridged from his or her pocket.


Internet (up)
Web and Web site (up)
but dot-com (down)

Friday (up)
cocktail hour (down)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

It's in the genes

My daughter had to remind tonight that I forgot a key memory in the opening post of this blog. We're all a product of environment and genes, and I left out a great anecdote.
My paternal grandfather was a businessman, Stanford Class of 1910. Was a friend of Hoover, so much so that when Hoover ran the European relief effort after World War I, he put my grandfather in charge of Poland. It's a biography waiting to be written. That's a shot of him, far left, at a Mills College function in 1935. I think he was on the board of directors. You'll notice he's holding his right arm. He contracted polio in Poland and it withered his left arm, and I think he was self-conscious about it.
Anyway, Maggie reminded me that the old man read books with a pencil in one hand. We have evidence up at our place in the mountains: dozens of old books. He didn't underline much, but he did edit with that pencil, circling mispellings and correcting grammars, putting commas where they should have been.
Get a life? Perhaps. I think the dictionary on the stand, which I mentioned on Greeley's Ghost, was his idea.
The point is I'm doomed. Maggie, our daughter, is probably doomed; Malcolm too (he already calls out "added bonus" anytime he hears it on the TV or radio. It's great for your mind; not so great for your friends.
C'est la vie.


Driving the wordsmith to school today, we heard...
"Fully engulfed," which ranks right up there with "totally destroyed" and the arson that was "intentionally set."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A (good) quote a day keeps the boredom away

One of the biggest challenges in journalism and PR is the quote. It's also the biggest lost opportunity.
In the wire-service business I was taught to quote someone only if I couldn't paraphrase the sentiment better. I was reminded that I was a writer, and that's what I got paid to do (I worked with a number of reporters over the years who used quotes liberally, and 99 percent of them aren't in the business anymore). A reporter or historian might have written "87 years ago," but Lincoln said "Four-score and seven," and they're four of the more memorable words in the English language.
In PR, quotes start out like crater-sized holes in a press release outline: "INSERT COMPANY/VENDOR/CUSTOMER QUOTE HERE." They go downhill from there. For many professionals, it's an afterthought. Almost without exception, press release quotes are dull and devoid of meaning.
Here's a winner from today's BusinessWire feed:

By implementing a standard way of managing the collaboration between technologies, EDRM has capitalized on the industrys readiness to work together and move the entire industry forward.

Replace "EDRM" with anything and it works in any industry. It's also meaningless. It's like saying people love warm sunny days.
Quotes, although tricky to write well, don't have to be this bad.
If you're in PR, use the quote to get your message across in a way that can't be paraphrased (journalists use canned quotes all the time, but they won't use crappy ones). You will get pushback from your client, but persevere because it will pay off. If you're a journalist, keep asking questions until you get a quote you can use.
A lot of this is writing 101, but it gets lost in the flood of information we all produce every day.


Rob Cox, on, has a fine post today that imagines a note from Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang to Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, responding to MSFT's $44.6 billion offer to buy his company.

However fine the post, it contained a couple of teaching moments.
"...came as a complete surprise." While not a hard-core redundancy, this example illustrates how a little discipline can go a long way in writing. Surprise speaks for itself; unless there's a time element (latest surprise), why modify its degree? A surprise is a surprise is a surprise. The more we modify words that stand resolutely on their own, the more muddled our communication becomes.

"...articulating our admittedly complicated strategy." All "Jerry" has to write is the word "complicated," and he's admitting its complexity. This too can be a gray area, but it's better to put all adjectives and adverbs under the magnifying glass in the heat of the day. More often than not, you should end up searing them into oblivion.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The facts on de facto

I came across this line while editing today:
"To date, the current de facto standard is...."
This is a belt-and-suspenders approach to writing. "To date" and "current," especially when you're writing in the writing tense (and if you're not, you've got other problems) are redundant here. "Current" is "to date." I'd much prefer "The standard is..."
Now for "de facto" ... this gets interesting. The definition is "in fact, in reality." Using it as a modifier here is like adding a second set of suspenders with your belt. A standard is a fact in this case. Webster's Unabridged provides a fine illustration of how to use de facto:
"Although the school was said to be open to all qualified students, it still practiced de facto segregation."

Onward to online...

From BBC online: "A total of 24 states will hold nominating contests on Super Tuesday." Better: "Twenty-four states xxx" (Geez, from the Brits, the fathers of the mother tongue).

Jennifer Lehr's opening line on the Huffington Post: "I've been totally obsessed with the primaries."
If you've got an obsession, I can guarantee you it's total. Obsession. 1. The domination of one's thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc. From the Latin obsessio meaning blockade or siege.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Pre- this, baby

A tip of the cap on this to Brian Santo (aka Wretch, as in ink-stained), who years ago published what amounted to a chemical equation as a headline in EE Times. It hung in another colleague's office until just last year.

Onward... Brian brings up the abuse of the prefix "pre." “Pre” is a prefix that you can easily begin to watch out for. There are scores of words where it is correct, but scores of words that lazy writers have coined and, in the process, created hilarious redundancies. For instance:
" comes pre-installed..."
"'s pre-packaged..."
"... the system is pre-configured..."
"When I'm really old, I expect my food to be pre-chewed."

As I noted in my inaugural post, there's "pre-plan ahead." And there's a "pre-established" whatever.

Researching this post, I came across "preadult," which originated between 1900-1905. What's wrong with "adolescent" and "child?"

In any case, I'm feeling prescient that there will a fair amount of pre-game imbiding this Super Bowl Sunday, which will precipitate a predisposition among many to precarious amounts of tipsness. There is precedent.
But this may just be my prejudice.

Words of the day

Aliquot: (adj.) 2. Chem., Pharm., comprising a known fraction of a whole and constituting a sample: "an aliquot quantity of acid for analysis."
From Latin ali, some other and quot, as many as.

Bolus: 1. Pharm., Ve., Med. A round mass of medicinal material, larger than an ordinary pill.
From the Greek, bolos: clod or lump.

I'm fairly confident that I will never again come across these two words in the same editing session. These popped out while I was reviewed an awards-nomination form for a high-tech, transdermal patch that delivers multiple medications.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Focus, focus, focus

The longer your parents are gone, the more the questions build. I have stored up bunch for my old man. Among the top five are: "You had money. Why did we have a monocular? Why not binoculars???"
If you've never seen a monocular it was because my old man bought the only one ever sold on the market. At any one moment in history, there are only so many one-eyed bird-watchers. But he had to have it. And it was a lot cheaper than the cheapest binocular set, which played to the core values of a man who, despite being wealthy, bought sport coats at K-Mart for $15. (The deal thrilled him, but it made my mom weep publicly).
The monocular: Undoubtedly it was designed by a German count who lost one eye in an artillery blast at Verdun. Everyone else in the world has binoculars, and while it's never easy to get each lens focused, you can at least at least try. With a monocular, you're squinting into the eyepiece and trying to determine if, yes, by golly, that is an ivory-billed woodpecker, or, more accurately, you're looking at an eyelash that's been permanently embedded in your cornea because you've been spending 20 minutes shoving your eye socket into the damn device trying to see something, anything.
Why, oh why, do I bring this up? Because I read constantly the construction "heavily focused" or "focused heavily." I Googled "focused heavily" in quotation marks and it returned 114,000 citations.
It's one of those phrases that drives ya nuts. Focus and weight do not go together the way that McDonald's and weight go together. In fact they don't go together at all.
If you want to modify focus, try "narrowly." But even then, why modify a perfectly good verb?
When it comes to good writing, the mantra is focus, focus, focus.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I hear that train a-comin'

Trains are loud, and steam-powered locomotives probably louder than diesel-powered trains. But Julia Flynn Siler took that noise to a new level in her book, House of Mondavi. In the first chapter, she wrote of family patriarch Cesare Mondavi travelling to California:

"As their smoke-bellowing train transported the family across the Great Plains and the desert into California..."

So not only did Mondavi have to put up with rocking and rolling, clanking and clatter of the old train (not to mention cranky kids, sleepless nights and flatulent fellow travellers), but the smoke was yelling at him.

Billowing is what she was looking for.

bil·low (bl) n.
"A great swell, surge, or undulating mass, as of smoke or sound. tells us the origin:
1545–55; <>bylgja wave, c. MLG bulge; akin to OE gebylgan to anger, provoke]

Monday, January 28, 2008

You know, um, she's like...

When I was a kid, my father would ride me mercilessly to get rid of a speech tics.
"I have a funny story for you," I'd start.
"I'll be the judge of that," he'd reply. (He got that response from HIS old man).
The biggest thing was "um." I had a habit, as did many kids in their pre-adolescent years, of inserting "um" in mid-speech as a way to pause and think about what to say next. He dinged me on it constantly. I remember vividly riding in our old Willys Jeep through the woods one summer day trying to tell him something laced with "ums." He kept knocking them back at me like Arthur Ashe volleying at the U.S. Open.
He won. Eventually. He forced me to pause silently as I searched for the next phrasing and he allowed me to feel comfortable pausing because he wouldn't interrupt.
Today, it's almost impossible to pause in the middle of a sentence because whomever you're with will interject something. It's a massive problem in this era, and we'll take that subject up later.


"Successfully achieved..." You can't unsuccessfully achieve, win, pass, modulate or do anything.
So when it comes to adverbs, I'll twist a line: "Trust yourself with adverbs the way you would trust a toddler with a butcher knife."

An annual headache

Often, people build sentences like McMansions. They insert phrases they think are giving heft to the communications, when they're just muddying the message.
"In an effort to..." and "seeking to bring"... are common poor constructions.

The following graf, which I pulled from a BusinessWire release this morning, uses one of those phrases in a sea of words, which, viewed as a whole border on the meaningless:

"Home-based occasions are rising with consumers seeking to bring the favored aspects of on-trade alcoholic drinks consumption into the home. However, although volume sales are rising, heavy discounting is limiting value growth and undermining the potential in consumers' openness to trading up."
"Five finalists for its first annual..."
It can't be annual if it's the first.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Safire On Language

Columnist William Safire is retired from the New York Times, although he continues to write "On Language" for The New York Times Magazine. Some years after I got the Edwin Newman books on language, someone gave me Safire's "On Language," which is and will be a classic. He had a chapter in there about whether to use "dived" or "dove" as the past tense. He weaved through arguments on both sides--arguing strongly, though, that "dived" is correct--until concluding that he wasn't sure it mattered.
"I'm not a hawk on dove," he wrote.
(His column today focuses on the word "change," beaten like an old horse in this year's presidential campaign.)

Friday, January 25, 2008

I’m aggressive on passive

The biggest contributor to bad communications is passive construction--the back-pew belchings of lazy writers. Passive sentences reflect a rushed writer who refuses to rethink a phrase to make it active, powerful and clear.

“A leading provider of database software for business intelligence.” That’s passive and flabby. It says almost nothing, except that the company sells database software. Well, wait. We don’t really know if it sells the software; it could be a distributor; it could be a consultant that just installs the software for someone. Provider is a very flabby term. Business intelligence. Some would argue that’s as oxymoronic as “military intelligence.” But people who follow enterprise software know what BI is. Still, in the Internet age when a release goes out, it’s available to everyone online, millions and millions of people. I’d say around 99.9999 percent of the people online don’t know what business intelligence means. So when you stumble into these jargon canyons, claw your way out with active sentences that give a better sense for, in this case, the software and its utility within an organization.


Commas in a series: This question came up today. In grammar school (maybe they don’t teach grammar any more), you’re taught to include a comma before “and” and “or” in a series. For example, “Today in San Francisco, it rained cats, dogs, and everything but the kitchen sink.” AP style, however, does not call for a comma. “My therapist told me to eat less, cut back on the booze and exercise more.” So we go with AP style.

Commas, periods, etc. and quotation marks: They always go inside, not outside the quotation marks, unless you’re in the United Kingdom, where, because they drive on the wrong side of the road, they put them outside.

P.S. These things “ “ “ are quotation marks. What the candidate said today on the stump is a great quote.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Just when you thought it was safe...

(01-23) 19:43 PST KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) --

Thieves in Malaysia stole an adult cow, squeezed it into the back seat of a car and drove off with it, but abandoned the animal when the getaway vehicle crashed into a tree, police said Thursday.

The cow, injured in the crash, was slaughtered by villagers.

Frazier vs. Ali; Roe v. Wade

There's an inherent bias toward overwriting on so many levels. People who can't communicate overwrite because it sounds important. Freelancers can overwrite because they often get paid by the word. And in PR people can overwrite because the client wants to see production; production=words.
In reality, it takes more time, is worth more to the client and allows the agency higher billings if a piece is written tightly and crisply. Why? Because it takes more time and effort!

Further vs. Farther
: Further is used with degree; farther with distance.
Comprise vs. Compose: Nine players comprise a baseball team; Major League Baseball is composed of team owners who have lost touch with reality.
Less vs. Fewer: Less bombast in discourse; fewer words in writing.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Worse than we thought

Newspapers, despite a platoon of copy editors, can come under withering fire for their lapses. Today's San Francisco Chronicle contained a head-scratching hed:
Startling jump in California foreclosures
Startling. Really. If you assume that the people who publish newspapers read their product (OK, maybe that's the whisky talking), how can a jump in foreclosures in this lousy real estate market be startling? Startling is when a piano falls onto the sidewalk in front of you. Startling is seeing the movie star you've fantasized about standing at your door with Champagne and flowers.
Utilize. One of the demon words of today's PR lexicon. It means to make something practical, as in "we utilized cold fusion." But 99.99% of the time, companies use it at a replacement for the frumpy but perfectly clear "use."
"Marking a year of exceptional momentum and recognition"....
It's hard to believe that a company would consider a product's momentum exceptional, unless of course the good communications folks believed the product to be a dog and the momentum to be a mind-boggling surprise. Exceptional means forming an exception or rare. Of course it also means superior, but that's the secondary definition. If you're writing on the razor's edge, there's gotta be a better word that doesn't open one up to this ridicule.

Word of the day: Ruction

Holman Jenkins Jr., one of America's best columnists, weighed in today on sovereign fund investments flooding into our vulnerable economy.
He asked:
"Would we prefer they spent it patronizing the global arms industry, especially after this week's temperamental market ructions?"

Ruction. There's a word I hadn't read before. It means a disturbance or a row, and its murky origin dates to between 1815-1825. Sounds like something that might have come from Wellington at Waterloo: "Quite a ruction, eh what?"
Ruction isn't related at all to ructation, which is the act of belching wind.
Just so you know.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Fighting flab

What got me rolling here was a short presentation I gave the staff on flabby language. I'd considered offering one-hour tutorials and bringing in pizza, but time's money in our business. Plan B was to do a couple of minutes at each all-hands meeting.
Here are some offenders I called out:

"Have already partnered/worked/etc." If you're using the past tense, it's already happened (or, I should say, 'it's happened.')

"Existing customers." If you keep using that construction with more pedantic customers, they won't be customers for long. What about "future customers" you ask. Well, in some circles we call those "prospects."

"Proven track record." A record is a record is a record. It's inherently proven because it's a record. If you want to get extreme, kill "track."

"Offers the ability to achieve unrivaled reach..." As a rule, ability is abused as a word in the communications business. In fact it's almost never used to describe someone's talents, as it should be. In the case here, "can reach," "offers unrivaled reach" work just fine.
And the best for last: "Brands seamlessly woven into XYZ’s vault of rich media." Not quite sure what that means, but weaves don't have seams; stitched materials do. And weaving something into a vault is a helluva technological achievement that even our asonishing age hasn't accomplished.

In the beginning...

I got the itch early. In high school, I took a shine to English. My grandparents gave me one of Edwin Newman's books on writing, and I was in. Then there was Harry Flanagin. He was an old friend of my grandmother's. He worked at the old San Francisco Call in the 1920s and '30s. When I started studying journalism, he, sitting in front of the Mill Valley Market sunning his 85-year-old face, would say: "The best part about journalism for me was taking out that big red pencil and just slashing through copy. There's no better feeling."
Years later, it was a radio ad:
"Pre-plan ahead for your future."
Today we find ourselves in an era of dreadful, undisciplined writing.
That's good news for some of us.

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