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?

The Third Degree of Taciturn Tim

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“We’re going to have to get him to talk and give us details,” Grammar Smith said.

“I dunno,” Dis Connect  replied. “It’s hard to get Tim to say more than just a simple sentence, Gram.”

Smith let Dis’s abbreviation of her name go as the pair gazed through the two-way mirror. She was concentrating on how to get the information she needed out of Taciturn Tim. She knew it was going to be tough. He wasn’t one to add description to his sentences.

As she entered the room and sat down, Smith said, “Tim, we really appreciate you coming in to help us. Can you tell me what happened?”

“She went,” Tim replied with just a subject and verb.

“That’s great, Tim, but can you give me a little more information? Who went?”

“The woman went.”

“I gathered it was a woman from your pronoun. Can you describe the woman?”

“The attractive woman went.”

Smith sighed. “Can you describe what she was wearing?”

“The attractive woman in the red dress and black pumps went.”

“Fantastic! Now we’re really getting somewhere,” Smith said although internally she wanted to shake more than a noun, a verb, a preposition, and a couple of adjectives out of Taciturn Tim.

Smiling in encouragement, she asked, “Can you give me an idea of where the woman went?”

“The attractive woman in the red dress and black pumps went into the building.”

Smith found her hand reaching toward her hip and was grateful that policy prohibited officers from wearing their guns in interrogation rooms.

“Oh, Tim,” she said through clenched teeth, “you’re doing so well. Do you know the address?”

“The attractive woman in the red dress and black pumps went into the building at the corner of Main and Elm.”

“We’re so grateful you came in to help us out,” Smith said as sweetly as she could muster and quickly gathered her notes. “Someone will be with you shortly to take your official statement.”

Good luck with that! she thought as she escaped the room.

“You’ve got the information,” she told her partner. “Go investigate.”

“Great job, Gram,” Dis said.

That was it. Smith’s last nerve snapped. She grabbed the front of Dis’s shirt and violently shoved him into the wall.

“I am not one of your elderly relatives!” she said quietly, dangerously. “It’s either ‘Grammar’ or ‘Smith.’ Got it?”

Dis nodded in astonishment (and fear).

“C’mon, Lieutenant Smith,” Sgt. Metaphor soothed as she gently tugged Smith away from her partner. “Let’s get some of that Cabernet you like.”


 

March 4 is National Grammar Day. John E. McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun is doing a delicious four-part series, “GRAMMARNOIR 8: Stet My Lovely,” on his blog You Don’t Say. I can’t wait to check out the next installment.

 


In Memoriam: Harper Lee, who gave us the wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird, died February 19. Here’s a quote from her any writer can appreciate:

“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

The Clues Are in the Vocabulary

When we are in a face-to-face conversation, we receive lots of information from nonverbal clues. When we read, we can’t see somvector-typewriter-10158eone’s facial expression, nor can we hear tonal changes in the words. What can writers do to compensate for this?

Writers use active, descriptive words and precise vocabulary to create clarity. It sounds easy, but it’s something people have a hard time with. Writers just need to remember the visual they are trying to present or the questions readers might have, and include words to fill in the gaps.

Let’s look at how writers can clue readers in.

Describe the Scene

Maybe we have a young character who is trying to avoid telling her mother the truth about how she did on a test. We know she’ll try to avoid outright lying but will do her best to skirt the truth.

What kinds of things will she do that will indicate that she is uncomfortable? What words will she use to answer her mother? How can we incorporate these things in our writing?

“How did you do on that test?” her mother asked.

Emily rolled her eyes toward the ceiling over her mother’s right shoulder as she shifted from one foot to the other.

“Umm. Well, I didn’t fail,” she grimaced with a weak, “heh, heh!”

If we had just written “Well, I didn’t fail,” Emily said, we might not understand the whole situation.  We paint the scene by describing Emily’s actions and the way she is speaking with specific vocabulary.

Use Precise Words

I already hear a bunch of you saying, “That’s great for fiction, but that doesn’t help me write a business letter.”

Well, precise language is even more important in business than it is in fiction. We lose efficiency when we don’t make ourselves clear.

Lots of folks have a hard time with this on resumes.

I’m a hardworking team player with advanced education. I am a highly qualified, successful worker with mad management skills.

Would you hire this person? What job would you hire her for? How many questions about the candidate pop into your head when you read this?

Say the job is for a design engineer in the air conditioning industry.

I led a team of seven engineers, designers, and lab technicians on a three-month project to increase SEER* in a five-ton residential unit from 14 to 16 with minimal changes to existing parts or footprint. (Note: I’m not an HVAC engineer so, if the numbers seem ridiculous, sorry about that.)

Notice that the candidate uses specific vocabulary to explain working on a team, leadership skills, time frame, and industry knowledge.

In business writing, the trick is to answer all the questions before someone has the opportunity to ask.  When people have to stop and seek further information, they waste time.

Revision is where most writers will see what words they need to put in, take out, or change. (Remember, we never skip the revision step.)

The trick is to avoid vague, general, weak words whenever we’re writing.

*SEER: Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio

What I Meant Was…

“I don’t think this grade is fair,” the student complained, pushing the essay toward me.

“Let’s see; you make a statement there that you don’t explain. Here, you put in a statement that has no connection with anything else you’re talking about. This statement makes no sense to me at all.”

“Yeah, but what I meant was…”

This is a conversation I’ve had with students more than I’d like to admit. They have a hard time putting themselves in their readers’ shoes and adequately explaining their thoughts.

This isn’t limited to the classroom. Many people post things on social media and get slammed because what they wrote is misinterpreted.

In the business world, when people don’t understand written information, it can get very costly, especially when it comes to customer relations.  A customer who feels ignored or offended won’t come back and won’t recommend that business to anyone else.

So, how do we make sure the reader knows exactly what we mean?

  1. Remember the reader can’t see or hear us. Unlike face-to-face communication, there are no facial expressions, body movements, or changes in voice tone to reinforce what we say. There are only the words before the readers. (This is why, unless you are very good, you should avoid sarcasm and irony.)
  2. Readers are not psychic. Readers can’t look into our brains for background information. If we know our audience, we can get an idea of what they may already know. However, it’s a good idea to err on the side of giving a little bit more information than not providing enough.
  3. Use precise words. The greatest thing about the English language is that it has the richest vocabulary in the world. Each word’s connotation (or “flavor”) can evoke in the reader just the response we want.
  4. Don’t throw in words that don’t do any work. I’m all in favor of cutting the “draggers” out of copy. Words and phrases people think sound “smart” actually drag readers away from seeing what we really mean. Business people hate wasting time sifting through unnecessary syllables to get to the meat of the idea. (Read some government “officialese” sometime to understand what to avoid.)
  5. Logically connect the ideas. When we don’t clearly, logically connect our ideas in our writing, it messes with readers’ comprehension. We want to be like tour guides and lead the readers through our ideas, so they can “ooh” and “ahh” at our brilliance.
  6. Don’t wait until the third page to put in the important stuff. As a journalist, I had to answer the four Ws in the first paragraph. Not all writing needs that, but we can’t leave the reader waiting too long for a clue to what we’re writing about. Chances are they won’t get that far in. I’m not saying we should shove everything at them at once, but we do need to give them a taste or idea of what’s coming to keep them interested.
  7. Have someone read it as a test. If the work is important, someone who can critique it for understanding and clarity is priceless. Now, we may not need to do this for Facebook posts, but for things like business reports, letters, and school papers, it is essential.
  8. Read it out loud! I tell this to everyone I know. I’m sure people think reading something out loud is goofy and unnecessary. Hey! I thought so, too. What I found (once I got over the initial awkwardness) was that I caught many, many mistakes when things didn’t sound right. If it doesn’t sound right, it needs to be rewritten until it does.

Making our thoughts clear through writing isn’t always easy, but it’s not rocket science either. We always have to remember what we need to do to make sure the reader, without any doubt, gets what we mean.