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.


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