Month: February 2011

Capital punishment

It’s Saturday evening and I had a glass of wine before I wrote this, so I have to share: God, I hate extraneous capital letters. They smack of self-important posturing and unearned respect. People who use them seem to think they add weight and importance, much as the use of the third person does for the Queen. But the truth is that they’re just annoying.

Law firms are major offenders, especially those that refer to themselves as “The Firm.” Why is your firm “The Firm” while Weedy, Footsore & Dank LLP is not? Or is every firm “The Firm?” What about proper names that include those two words, like the John Grisham novel and the San Francisco boutique?

Here are the rules, people: A person’s title is capitalized when it precedes his or her name and is therefore seen as part of the name—Judge Judy, President Barroso. Further references to the person holding the title appear in lowercase: the judge, the president.

The name of a group is capitalized when it is the full name: the Department of Bloodsucking Bottomfeeders. Further references are lowercased: the department.

Which means that Backbite, Snivel and Drone is a firm, not The Firm. You’re welcome.

Know thy market

I’m not in the habit of trashing other writers. But I recently saw a list of writing tips on a copywriter’s website that made me wonder how some people stay in business.

This (by his own account, very successful) writer saved the most important tip for last: “Don’t worry about correct English.” He gave the word “orientated” as an example: “Okay, technically, the word is ‘oriented’. But so what? You certainly know what it means when a business says it is ‘service-orientated’, right? I make no apology in using it, and happen to like it quite a bit.”

After I finished being appalled—“I make no apology in using it?” Really?—I gave this statement some serious thought. Judging from his client list, this guy targets rural small business owners. Their readers, in turn, include plenty of people who use the word “orientating” (along with “irregardless” and “analyzation”) and don’t want to feel like idiots for doing so.

In addition to  what he calls “Plain-English Writing for Real People,” this writer offers reassurance that the way his clients speak and think is good enough. So even though I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than read his work samples, I can see why people hire him.

As if things weren’t confusing enough

There’s no official name for the group of words that are their own opposites—I’ve seen them called Janus words, contronyms and antagonyms. Whatever the name, it’s fun to speculate on how they developed. Examples:

Sanction. Allow/boycott
Snap. Break into pieces/fasten together
Stem. Originate/cut off
Anxious. Anticipate eagerly/await with dread
Screen. Conceal/display
Custom. Usual/special
Bolt. Secure/run away


The idea that it’s better to be succinct dates back at least as far as Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad.

More recently, a high school senior made headlines for his response to a college application question asking students to discuss their favorite word. His essay—which earned him admission to the University of Virginia—read, “My favorite word is Brevity. It’s concise.”

The admissions officer who received this gem, perhaps on a day when she was feeling nauseous from slogging through the huge stack of applications lauding “Originality” and “Motivation,” can be forgiven for giving it the thumbs up. Similarly, colleagues and clients who receive hundreds of emails each day will be grateful if you keep it brief.

Speaking in tongues

If you want a great name for something, ask a linguist. One of my favorite sites is Language Log, where the following terms are in daily use.

Snowclones. Variations on popular phrases. When Watson wiped the floor with the humans on Jeopardy, Ken Jennings snowcloned The Simpsons by cracking, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.” Other examples include “I’m a doctor, not a _______” and “The _______ from hell.”

The Cupertino Effect occurs when computer spell checkers substitute the wrong word (and copy editors don’t catch it); it was coined by European journalists who kept replacing “cooperation” with “cooperatino.”

Crash Blossoms were named for a headline about a musician whose career prospered after her parents died: “Violinist Linked to Air Crash Blossoms.” They can be ambiguous (“Hanging Meat Causes Stir in South St. Louis”) or just plain hilarious (“Man Accused of Killing Lawyer Gets New Attorney”). They even have their own website.

Mountweasel is the official name for the cartographer’s trick of including fake locations to protect map copyrights. When I start a band, I will name it The Mountweasels.

Finally, ace copy editor Carol Fisher Staller drew my attention to Shatner Commas, which she described as “oddly placed commas that don’t serve any actual purpose, but make it look like you should pause, as William Shatner does when delivering lines.”

Gotta, love it.

I write, ergo I misuse Latin

The use of Latin is virtually unavoidable for business writers, especially in the legal industry. The Romans developed the first written system of law, and lawyers—never quick to innovate—have yet to update their terminology.

Although a few Latin terms can add gravitas to your presentation, anything more smacks of pretension. Here are common examples along with guidelines for proper use.

  • E.g. is short for exempli gratia (“for example”). Use periods after each letter.
  • Et al. (et alia, “and others”) should be punctuated only after the second word—the first is not an abbreviation.
  • I.e. (id est, “that is”) precedes a clarification. It’s frequently confused with e.g., which introduces  examples.
  • N.B. (nota bene,“note well”) can almost always be replaced by the words “Note that….”
  • Re is short for in re (“in the matter of”). Email headers to the contrary, it does not mean “reply.”
  • Viz. is an abbreviation of videlicet (“namely”).  Often—and understandably—confused with e.g., it precedes a list within a larger class: “Three species of apes lived in the monkey house, viz. chimpanzees, gorillas and gibbons.”

More good terms gone bad

Thanks to all the readers who got in the game. I’m guilty of using quite a few of these:

Out of the box thinking. There’s no solution, but it will be fun to watch you kill yourself looking for one. (Jennifer Howald)

It’s all good. I’m sorry, but it’s your problem.  (Jennie Livingston)

Just sayin’. Just weaseling out of confrontation. (Amy Cassedy Lewis)

Politically correct. Insert eye-roll here. (Jeremy Epstein)

Bad for morale

The people (you know it was a committee) who dreamed up “morale booster” probably had their employees’ best interests at heart. Yet it’s come to connote “too little, too late,” “PR opportunity for management,” and a whole lot of other negatives.

Other good terms gone bad include:

Creating synergy. One of a “grab-bag of phrases that fill in for actual ideas, goals or know-how,” says reader Alba Brunetti.

Work with me. “Lower your rates to fit my wee budget.” (Jenna Schnuer)

Operational excellence. “Layoffs and massive budget-cutting” (Sarah Maxim). Used to be called streamlining or rightsizing.

Teachable moment. “You fucked up.” (Sophia Dembling)

Please add to the list!

Sometimes bad writing is good

I think we’ve established that I’m a writing snob, grammarian from hell, bitch in the next cubicle—whatever you want to call it. To quote a Facebook group I was recently invited to join, “I judge you when you confuse their and they’re.”

But there are situations where formally correct writing isn’t necessary or even desirable. One example is when you’re talking exclusively to peers. The associates’ newsletter, written by associates for associates, will come off as stuffy if it refers to “Mr. Fuster’s performance on the field” at the company softball game. A group text to IT employees under the age of 25 didn’t ruffle any feathers when it began, “Imma reserve the conf room for the 3 pm.”

There are two rules to keep in mind when writing informally. First, be appropriate; that “Imma” would look ridiculous to most people over the age of 35. Second, err on the side of formality, especially if you have a tendency to “joke” with terms that could be considered offensive. A memo addressed to “Hos and bros,” meant only for members of a tightly knit sales department, resulted in the writer getting fired when it was forwarded to the CEO.

Which brings up another point: assume your message will get forwarded.  And be ready to explain yourself when it does.

When it comes to words, choose wisely

I’ve always loved the word “mellifluous.” It’s a lovely example of onomatopoeia—words that suggest or imitate the thing they are describing.  On the other hand, I physically itch when someone says “chafe.” It’s far more irritating than, say, “irritating.”

Since our goal is to influence our readers, corporate writers need to be especially sensitive to word choice. I recently saw a job search letter in which the applicant described her work as “superior.” The word gave me a mental image of the woman looking down her nose at her colleagues. The same applicant wrote that she had a “chronic” interest in magazine writing. She would have been better off with “continuing” (although the urge to write does sometimes feel like a disease).