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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