Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

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As I read The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay, I’m struck by the universal expectation of speed and accuracy that the code breakers constantly labored under.

There was no other choice. The quickness and precision of their work were truly matters of life and death.

“Close is only good enough in horseshoes and hand grenades” is an indication of how much society values accuracy.

We demand it in our health care, in business, in science, and in mathematics. We get upset (rightfully so) when someone bills us incorrectly or makes a mistake in our bank accounts.

Why, then, are we complacent about inaccuracies in written communication?

I’m not just talking about inaccuracies in word use or grammar. Those can be very irritating and cause misunderstanding – yes. But, a dedicated reader will go back and translate the meaning (although they shouldn’t have to).

What worries me is when writers offer something as a statement of fact when it may just be conjecture or rumor. Worse is saying something that is downright wrong without having checked first.

“What’s the harm?” you ask.

The most glaring example I can think of is the initial coverage of the December 14, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  Credible news agencies reported, with “unnamed sources” as the basis, that Ryan Lanza, instead of his brother Adam, was the shooter.

In fact, Ryan was nowhere near Connecticut. Can you imagine how his neighbors, coworkers, and friends would have treated him after that incorrect information spread like wildfire? Can you imagine how he felt when authorities searched his New Jersey apartment?

It’s bad enough that his brother had committed the heinous crimes, but to be seen by the world as the perpetrator as well must have been devastating. How could you get over being accused of killing your own mother and innocent children and school staff, even if briefly?

Sure, this is an extreme example, but this idea of “close is good enough” in our communication can cause headaches.

One manufacturer I worked for had a plant in Mexico. Specifications for a design change omitted whether it should be in inches or centimeters. When the prototype part was made, it was gigantically wrong. The failure to include what form of measurement cost lots of time and money.

We tend to write more when communicating these days, not less. Social media is rife with inaccuracies, assumptions, and miscommunication because people write without checking the facts or being accurate in what they say and how they say it. This has ruined relationships and reputations unnecessarily.

I will admit that I have fallen into the “it’s good enough” trap, especially when it comes to papers written in my non-writing courses. I try to be generous by reading what students intend to say instead of what they actually do. I lower my expectations of precise communication. I need be clear that they must write clearly, no matter the pain of giving a bad grade.

If we all start expecting accuracy in our communication, can we change the world?

HAM Today!

The production of acronyms is getting out of hand.

Acronyms are useful shortcuts. It’s a lot easier saying HIPPA instead of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

But more and more I find myself getting confused. My friend Barbara and I were talking about news, and she used the term “FOIL.”  I didn’t understand what she meant (Freedom of Information Law). I had always referred to it as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). What’s the difference between a law and an act other than it makes for a better acronym?

There are acronyms that seem to have their full names contrived to fit in. (Logically, these are called contrived acronyms.) A fictional example is SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division). Should there be a comma after “Intervention”? I digress.

Anyone who thinks CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) is not a contrived acronym needs to get some sort of counseling.

People are spewing acronyms all over the place and using them without explaining what they are. There are even acronym generators online that will help you out. (Pooly, but they try.)

 

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Certain occupations, like the military and computer coders, seem to use acronyms more than others. Richard Edwards, who says he works in bioinformatics, decided to make things fun and created ORCA (Organisation of Really Contrived Acronyms).

There are places for acronyms and places where they definitely do not belong. Remember your audience, folks! Don’t force them to look things up.

I think I want to HAM (Halt Acronym Misuse).


Congratulations, Canada, on your 150th “birthday” July 1!

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We’ll reach 241 here in the United States on July 4.  Party time in North America!

Weekend Wrinkle: Support a Copy Editor

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Copy editors, the unsung heroes of the writing world, are finally getting recognition. Unfortunately, it is because they face losing their jobs.

Hundreds of the New York Times employees walked out June 29 to protest the elimination of  the Times’ stand-alone copy desk where about 100 copy editors toil away to make the paper readable and accurate. Those folks have been “invited” to apply for 50 copy editing positions that will be available. (For an in depth look, see the Washington Post’s “Why hundreds of New York Times employees staged a walkout.” )

For years I have watched as copy editing positions were eliminated in favor of “streamlining” communication. The result has always been mistakes, confusion, and inaccuracy flooding through (not to mention hideously bad grammar and usage).

Modern communication, especially news, is focused on speed. The faster you can get the information out, the better. Copy editing slows things down.  Heck, you can always apologize for getting it wrong later on. We all know how well that works.

Copy editors make sure that what gets out is accurate, clean, and understandable. They can also save a publication’s butt by making sure potentially libelous phrasing and misinformation doesn’t make it out into pubic. (Can you say “Sarah Palin,” NYT?)

How many times has a copy editor saved you from an embarrassing mistake? I have a friend who will call me up to let me know I’ve made an error in this blog. Bless her soul for that! I’m sending out cosmic hugs to all you eagle-eyed folks!

Copy editors know that their best work is invisible. Readers can’t see what was cut, reworked, or fact checked. But, boy, readers sure notice when that work isn’t done!

With accusations of “fake news” being flung all over the place, why would you cut holes in your safety net by laying off copy editors, especially when you’re seen as the newspaper of record in the United States?

The best headline I’ve seen about this is from The Concourse on Deadspin.com: “The New York Times Is Killing Its Soul.”

 

Interactive Fiction on the Horizon?

ebook possibilities

A while ago, I mused about the future of books. One of the things I wondered about was whether e-books would make reading more interactive.

Netflix, according to a recent story on Variety.com, is launching interactive television episodes for children. On limited systems (for now), children will be able to choose which story line to follow.

As a reader, I have always created alternate or extended plots in my head about my favorite characters.

Writers often have to choose among several plot lines and character development to get their story to progress in a linear fashion.

Is it time for these two to merge and become interactive reading? What would it take to create an interactive book? Will e-publishers take the economic risk to offer them?

I’m sure this has been used for children’s books somewhere. Their stories are usually simpler (and shorter) than adult fiction.

The technology is here to produce interactive fiction for adults.

This is an exciting development for authors. Think about it; you offer alternative fictional worlds and lives. Minor characters could morph into protagonists. The possibilities are endless.

Has anyone tried this yet? Is anyone working on it? Anyone have suggestions on how to go about doing this?

All Caps ≠ Importance

Carlotta Capilito

The building reverberated with a stentorian voice.

What is going on?” Grammar Smith was startled in mid-sentence of a report on a particularly nasty case of apostrophe abuse.

“I WANT TO SPEAK TO SOMEONE IN CHARGE.” The voice was getting closer – and louder.

“What’s all the fuss about?” Grammar asked Sgt. Metaphor.

“Huh?” The sergeant took earplugs out.

“What’s the fuss?”

“Oh, it’s just Carlotta Capilito. She’s here to talk to you about arrangements for the annual Composition Benefit Gala.”

Sgt. Metaphor put the earplugs back in as a tall, stately woman rounded the corner.

“ARE YOU LIEUTENANT GRAMMAR SMITH?”

“Yes.” Grammar was surprised that her hair was actually being blown back. She thought that only happened in comic books.

“I AM CARLOTTA CAPILITO, AND EVERYTHING I SAY IS IMPORTANT. I AM HERE TO DISCUSS THE GALA.”

“Right this way,” Dis Connect had appeared and was showing Carlotta to a meeting room.

Sgt. Metaphor handed Grammar a pair of earplugs, “Here. I also have some Chardonnay on ice for when the meeting’s over.”

Mystified, Grammar took the earplugs and was putting them in when she heard, “Hi, Grammar!! How have you been?! Working on this gala together is going to be great!!”

Pushing Grammar toward the meeting room, Sgt. Metaphor nodded sagely, “Eddie Exclamation is on the committee, too.”


Thanks to Roxie for inspiring this week’s entry. 🤗

The Editor’s Greatest Skill of All

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The other day, I got to thinking about what skills make an editor good. Of course, there are all the obvious ones: excellent grammar and sentence structure, comma wrangling, large vocabulary, audience analysis, strategic thinking, collaboration, and near-obsessive attention to detail.

However, the greatest ability for an editor is to ask the right questions.

Surprised? Most people think that writers are the ones who should be most concerned with questions.

If clarity is the goal of a written item (whether it be a 250-word blog post or a 200-page report), the editor must make sure the way the information is presented is understandable to readers.

If the editor is unsure, the readers won’t get it. When readers are confused, there’s miscommunication which can lead to lost time, inefficiency, and other forms of chaos.

Well written copy doesn’t usually require a lot of editorial questioning. The writer has already asked herself the questions and answered them for the reader. But, as we know, almost all copy needs some massaging since writers have a hard time remembering readers can’t see inside the writers’ heads.

That’s where editors come in. As representatives of readers, they must ask questions to make sure the message is complete and written to get the intended response.

Sometimes this requires fearlessness, especially if the writer is a superior convinced she is the latest incarnation of Shakespeare.

A large dose of tact is also essential. (Take it from someone who learned the hard way.)

So, what are these questions I speak of? Here are a few to have in your arsenal:

  • Is this what you meant? (Insert paraphrase)
  • Why is this important to include?
  • Is there a way to break up this sentence so we don’t lose the reader?
  • Is this the word you meant to use or might this (insert substitute) be clearer?
  • Can you give an example or details of what you mean here?
  • How does this connect to the rest of what you have written?
  • Is this the tone you think will be most effective?

What do you think? Are there other questions editors should ask?

Comma Wars Rage On

Just when you thought you were safely out of the Oxford (serial) comma melee, it comes back to bite with the force of legal precedence.

Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute”* is the headline for a recent New York Times article.

Folks on either side of this comma issue are firmly (and vocally) supportive. Most news agencies omit the last comma in a series. Most academic style guides require it to be there.

I’m not an advocate of putting commas in all over the place. (Just because you tend to pause doesn’t mean a comma belongs there.) However, I feel the consistent use of the Oxford comma prevents confusion.  Really, in an age of electronic writing, what’s the reason for leaving it out?

No matter what side you are on, this law needed to be written more clearly.  Here is the piece of legislation:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

The argument (successful as it turns out) is that “distribution” is part of the “packing for” phrase.  In my not-so-legal mind, that would require a conjunction to appear after “storing.” On the other hand, putting the comma after “shipment” would have saved everyone a whole bunch of time, effort, and money.

This just goes to prove that commas can have a huge impact on life.


*This link might not work if you’ve gone over your free limit of news stories.

Put the ‘Professional’ in Professional Writer

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***Rant Alert***

Normally, I try not to nitpick grammar when I’m reading.

  • I’ve given up trying to convince people that the past tense of the verb to lead is actually led.
  • The indiscriminate (and incorrect) use of then and than barely fazes me anymore.
  • Commas, well, the fight for their proper use is a lost cause at the best of times.

However, I get really miffed when professional writers (yes, they get paid) consistently make careless errors.

What set me off this time was the misuse of compliment when people meant complement. Seriously? How hard is it to remember that the “e” version is used when you mean something completes something? Otherwise you’re just saying something nice or giving away swag.

There were four stories last week – in such online publications as the New York Post and Forbes – that had it wrong. One story had it incorrect multiple times! Those were just the ones I tripped across.

That was the spark that ignited my latest explosion.

A piece on The Hockey Writers (my underlining) blog said a player was doing well but needed to “flush out his game.” Does that mean get rid of everything the player knows and start again? Or did the “writer” mean the player should flesh out his game? If you’re going to use an idiom, use it correctly.

Speaking of using words correctly, here is an item I came across in a South Carolina daily:

A pedestrian was killed Tuesday night after colliding with a car on U.S. 21 just south of Rock Hill, state troopers said.

Now, the verb “collide” indicates that its subject is in motion toward what it eventually hits.  This gives the unfortunate impression that the pedestrian ran toward the vehicle.

What about this sentence from a long-time sports writer at the New York Post?

The Rangers created numerous glorious opportunities off turnovers in the offensive zone and neutral zone forced by pressure and off quick puck movement off the rush.

Huh? I follow hockey, and I still can’t understand this sentence.

If you’re a professional writer, put  some effort into making your writing correct and clear. Otherwise, for heaven’s sake (not to mention the sanity of thousands of grammar geeks), get yourself a good copy editor!

 

A Fact Is a Fact Is a Fact…

cat-reading-newspaper

“Alternative facts” is the latest oxymoron going around Washington, D.C., these days.

There are always lots of oxymorons in our nation’s capital, but this one seems particularly appropriate to my recent item concerning precise wording.

How can a fact be anything other than a fact? The sky is blue. That’s a fact.

Whether it is a happy blue or a sad blue is a matter of conjecture.

If I said the sky is blue today but I didn’t look out my window to verify it was so, then I would be making a supposition. (How many times have you heard a weather reporter say it was a beautiful, sunny day when it was pouring rain, and you screamed, “Look out your d—-d window!”?)

This whole “alternative facts” issue is getting out of hand. Not only do people misunderstand the definition of fact, many are using “alternative facts” interchangeably with “fake news.”

Fake news is a real phenomenon and the result of consumers blindly believing the information they are fed without questioning its source or veracity. It is allowed to grow because people are unlikely to make the effort to think on their own.

I find the accusations that the New York Times is printing “fake news” hilarious. Do you think any news publication’s advertisers would stand for constant fallacies? Accuracy is the foundation of any professional news organization. What the NYT, like any other established news organization, is really doing is putting its own perspective on the news.

People, encouraged by how news is presented, are too willing to take conjecture, supposition, and opinion as fact.

It is a sad state of affairs when consumers of news aren’t thinking critically about the news they receive.

‘Momma Word’ Isn’t Always Right

I’mmother-rocking-baby no Luddite*, but I always try to understand the limitations of the technology I’m working with.

I love word processing software. It is so
helpful. It automatically cleans up my typos. It formats pages for me. It can even give me an outline to organize my material.

The problem is when it becomes too helpful and wants to do it all for me. Luckily I have the training to know when I’ve written a complete sentence Word is convinced is a fragment.  I’m capable of correct, off-the-wall spellings Word is compelled to change to a completely different word.

Honestly, if I see defiantly when definitely is the word the writer means, I’m going to swing my keyboard at somebody’s head!

No, I don’t always want a preformatted space after a paragraph.

And don’t get me started on bullets! I’ve spent far too much time fighting Word’s pre-formatted style. It isn’t what I want, but I’ve got to settle in order to get it done.

It’s like Word is telling me, “Honey, I know what’s best for your writing. You just sit right back and let Momma Word take care of it for you.”

It makes me feel like I’m a teenager struggling against the restriction of what adults “know best.”

The good thing for me is that I am experienced and practiced enough to recognize when I’m right and Word is wrong. I can find ways around it.

What worries me are all those people out there who don’t have the experience or skill to recognize there’s a problem. They let Momma Word take care of it and ignorantly go about their writing clueless to the mistakes they’re making. I think that’s why I’m so worried about artificial intelligence.

For the sake of good writing, go out, buy yourself a dictionary, and use it! Invest in a good grammar and style manual. Use them!

Don’t let Momma Word take your voice away.

* Someone who is resistant to change, especially technological change.