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!

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!

 

Ooh! Talk Jargon to Me – Not!

talkjargontome“The product availability situation is resultant from an undertooled matrix team deficient in chronological implementation systems,” declared the CEO.

Adolescent commas and dashes squealed and swooned in ecstasy to hear the jargon.

“Name and goodwill and payment of the Holders from service of the Plan Years, the Warrant certificates are no portion of the Warrants which will emanate from Licensor,” crooned the lawyer.

“Don’t they just talk fancy!” one dash proclaimed.

Fancy, yes; intelligible, definitely not.

Jargon in general writing is a blatant symptom of “I want to sound smart” syndrome (IWTS3). Remember? We talked about this. The way to be smart is to write clearly, not to write so no one can understand you.

Yes, there is a place for jargon – among people in the same occupation. That’s because jargon is like a shorthand for people with a common background for quick communication. It’s like another language, which is exactly the reason it shouldn’t be used in mixed company.

When using jargon, IWTS3 sufferers display

  • an uncontrollable desire to be admired for their enigmatic words,
  • the mistaken idea that people actually enjoy trying to sift through the dreck to find the kernel of meaning, and
  • a smug power high which radiates, “You’re too ignorant to understand.”

How do we cure IWTS3 sufferers from using jargon?

The old treatment was to slap the writer upside the head with a pica stick*.  That turned out to be pretty ineffective (no matter how satisfying for the editor).

Modern treatment is to lock the writer up with a group of copy editors and grammar geeks screaming, “Revise! Revise! Revise!”

The length of exposure depends on the persistence of the condition.

 

*In the “bad old days,” editors used a stick with pica measurements to make sure headlines would fit. Talk about using jargon!

Don’t Forget What Supports Good Writing

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Photo/Creativity103.com

There is several things I eluded to recently that cause me to reign in my ideals about writing good?

Who read that and thought, “Has she lost her mind?!”

People who think grammar, word choice, and punctuation aren’t all that important don’t seem to understand that those elements are necessary for clear communication. Clarity of writing is the target we all (except maybe politicians, legislators, and lawyers) must strive for.

Any business knows that clearly and precisely outlining the benefits of the products or services it offers means success.

What happens when we ignore the guidelines for good writing? One thing is that we make our readers work too hard. If the reader has to go back several times in a sentence to try to “translate” what the writer means, the reader is forced to concentrate on the mechanics rather than the meaning.

Worse than that, we all know what happens when people have to fill in the blanks of intention. In the old game of telephone, a message is whispered along to each player in a line until, by the end, what comes out barely resembles the original message. Let’s not provide an environment of obscurity.

We need to remember that grammar is the infrastructure that supports the easy flow of communication while precision with words is the traffic light that guides the reader to the idea.

We write to share – to provide information, evoke emotion, or persuade. If we ignore the elements that create good writing, we fail to communicate.

Weekend Wrinkle: The Rise of The Nib

The NibIn the bowels of the government office building, intrepid copy editor Devon Taylor chased down a lead on a cabal so intent on twisting and bloating the writing in public reports as to make them dense and unintelligible.

“I must foil their dastardly plan to pervert the idea of freedom of information,” Devon thought as the pinprick from the pen light showed the way.

Soon the hallway opened up into a large storage area, dimly lit by flashlights in the raised hands of hooded, cloaked, chanting figures.

“Jargon is king!”

“Perfection is reached by passive voice.”

“All hail wordiness!”

The mysterious figures slowly circled a huge vat of what, from the smell, could only be lead-based ink.

Mobile device at the ready, Devon was just about to get the evidence needed to expose the cabal to the world when hands reached out and grasped Devon’s arms and legs. The captors lifted a struggling, yelling Devon and tossed the copy editor into the vat.

Sinking, sinking into the blackness, all Devon could think was, “This is it. This is the end. My quest for quality writing is thwarted!”

Then the pain came. The chemicals and lead caused an explosion of agonizing transformation to Devon’s body.  Head, arms, torso, legs – all were converted into something much more, something destined to rid the world of obtuse writing.

Devon Taylor no longer existed. Shooting up from the roiling, ebony liquid surged The Nib – Champion of Clear Writing.

How We Leap into Chaos When We Spell the Way We Speak

Happy Leap Day!Shrf's cawfee
I was talking with a colleague recently about how people misspell words. One that always gets me is when people write “use” when they mean “used.” For example, she use to go to school with me.

Amanda pointed out people make that type of mistake because they are writing words the way they hear them. This is just like using “could of” and “would of” instead of “could have” or “could’ve” and “would have” or “would’ve.”

Part of the problem is folks don’t read enough anymore to recognize the difference (and good, correct writing is getting harder to come by). Part of the problem is there are regional differences in the U.S. (and anywhere else, for that matter) that affect what we say and how we pronounce things.

For instance, my mother-in-law would say, “I’m going down cellar.” She would leave out the article “the” all the time. (It was always “cellar,” never “basement,” too.)

One phrase I had to get used to when I moved to the South was “put it up” instead of “put it away.”

My mother, a bit of a stickler for good grammar, was not immune. She would not turn a light on or off; she would “open” the light or “close” it.

Anyone hearing me talk about Long Island would immediately recognize by my hard pronunciation of the “ng” that I grew up in the New York metropolitan area. (I wonder what I would put at the end of “long” if I was spelling it as I speak it, a “k”?) My son-in-law laughs at me when I say coffee (cawfee) or sheriff (shrf). Sigh.

Sometimes my many years spent living in Central New York will pop up when I find the diphthong ou coming out as “oo” instead of “ow”: He was aboot to jump off the cliff.

One thing that sets off my grammar radar is when people mispronounce “suite.” People often pronounce it like suit instead of sweet. When people say, “I bought a new living room suite [pronounced suit],” I always get this vision of an easy chair in pinstripes and double rows of buttons.

Amanda cautions her students that, while differences in pronunciation are acceptable when speaking, they shouldn’t be made when writing.

Can you imagine the chaos if everyone wrote exactly the way they spoke?