Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bad diction in restaurants

In a previous post, I described how waiters often use bad diction to hustle change from their guests. This is one of several annoying uses of bad diction by waiters today. Almost invariably, the offenders are American. Waiters from Bangladesh, Belarus, Bulgaria and other foreign lands seem to have no trouble speaking good English.

A few years ago, out of frustration, I printed a small information sheet and began carrying a copy with me. If a waiter uses annoyingly bad diction, I leave the sheet for him, with violations checked off, as on a parking ticket.

Below in blue is the text of the sheet.

The Five Most Common Mistakes in Table Service
And How to Avoid Making Them

You probably don’t even notice when you make one of these common mistakes. But many of your guests do notice. Any one of these five mistakes can offend your guests, make you seem unprofessional, and limit the size of your tips. If you follow the simple advice given here, your guests will be friendlier and more generous.

1. Don’t say “you guys.” It’s childish and trashy. In adult English, the plural of the pronoun you is you. In other words, you don’t need to say “you guys” or “you folks” or “you kids.” Just say “you.”

2. When guests have studied their menus and appear to be ready to order, don’t ask, “All set?” It makes you sound indolent and uncouth. And especially do not ask, “Have we decided?” The smarmy use of we in place of you irritates many guests because it reminds them of condescending medical doctors who talk this way. The traditional and polite question is, “May I take your order?”

3. When you are checking to see if guests are enjoying their meals, don’t ask, “How are you doing?” This wording implies that the guests are somehow responsible for the quality of the meals. The traditional, polite and logical question is “How is everything?” It keeps the responsibility where it belongs: on the chef.

4. When a guest appears to have finished eating, don’t ask, “All set?” And especially do not ask, “Are you still working on this?” The guest is a human being enjoying a nice meal, not a beaver gnawing through a tree trunk. The traditional and polite question is, “May I take this?” or “May I clear your place?”

5. When a guest has paid his check in cash, don’t ask, “Do you need change?” or “All set?” Hustling tips in this way is presumptuous and offensive. The traditional and polite response is, “I’ll bring you your change.” It’s up to the guest to say, “No, please keep the change,” or to quietly leave the tip from the change that you bring back to him.

This sheet is not copyrighted. You are welcome to duplicate it and use it.

The Takeaway: If you enjoy dining in fine restaurants, I’m sure you’ve noticed that a waiter’s bad diction can ruin the experience. Next time it happens, leave the waiter a copy of the above list. Unless he has become hopelessly uncouth, it may help him improve his diction.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hiding the agent (2)

In a column published today, George F. Will (photo) writes about the prosecution of a gun shop owner in Arizona:

“The gun shop’s proprietor, the name of whose shop might indicate familiarity with Arthurian legend, is on trial here, accused of selling at least 650 weapons, including AK-47 rifles, in small lots to ‘straw buyers’ – persons who illegally pass on the weapons to the cartels, thereby fueling the violence that killed more than 6,000 Mexicans last year.”

In a previous post, I discussed the tendency of politicians to abuse the passive voice in order to hide the agent. Mr. Will’s sentence quoted here demonstrates another method of hiding the agent.

In this 57-word sentence, the strongest word by far is “killed.” It’s a past-tense, active-voice, indicative-mood verb. Let’s go looking for its agent; that is, let’s look for the person or persons who killed those “more than 6,000 Mexicans last year.”

The subject of “killed” is the relative pronoun “that.” The antecedent of this pronoun is “violence.” So, in our search for the person or persons who killed all those Mexicans, we have so far identified “violence” as a possible agent. But of course, violence is not a person.

Any accessories? Well, we see that something is “fueling” the “violence” that “killed” the Mexicans.

Notice that this is a present participle in an adverbial phrase (“thereby fueling the violence”). The phrase modifies the verb “pass on.”

(Please bear with me. When writers such as the clever Mr. Will craft these labyrinthine sentences, it takes time to analyze them down to plain English.)

The subject of “pass on” is the relative pronoun “who.” The antecedent of “who” is the noun “persons.” The noun “persons” is in apposition to the noun phrase “straw buyers.” According to the prosecution, the gun shop owner sells guns to these straw buyers.

OK. So, the owner of the Arizona gun shop is accused of selling guns to straw buyers. The straw buyers reportedly pass the guns on to cartels. And this act of passing on the guns somehow “fuels” the violence that killed more than 6,000 Mexicans last year.

Now, putting aside Mr. Will’s tortured prose for a moment: we all know from reading and common sense that various people in Mexico who sell illegal drugs and form groups known as “drug cartels” kill a lot of people in Mexico.

Now turning back to Mr. Will’s sentence, we see that he has made cartels an indirect object. That is, he has placed the least emphasis on the persons who are most likely to have killed those “more than 6,000 Mexicans last year.”

I do not presume to know what is in the heart of George F. Will. But after editing prose for 41 years, I do know that skilled writers rarely construct labyrinthine sentences by accident.

The Takeaway: As you read “the mainstream media,” watch for examples like Mr. Will’s sentence quoted here. When you spot one, take a few minutes to analyze its structure. The exercise will help you learn how not to write like this.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Due diligence

On the web site of The Piacente Group, Inc., an investor relations firm, we see a brief letter from the firm’s president, Brandi Piacente (photo).

The letter contains at least 13 errors and irregularities. This is the kind of writing that can harm a profession’s reputation. Literate members of the public expect that people who work in exacting professions such as investor relations will produce clear writing as a matter of course.

Let’s look at the error in the president’s letter that is most likely to confuse the reader. It’s in the last sentence:

“By providing innovative investor relations practices, our clients are able to achieve maximum exposure in the marketplace and reach their strategic objectives.”

To understand the sentence, the reader needs to know who is doing the providing, and to whom. Without this information, the reader is forced to guess:

Is the firm providing innovative investor relations practices to the clients?

Is the firm providing innovative investor relations practices to the marketplace, on behalf of the clients?

Are the clients providing innovative investor relations practices to the firm?

Are the clients providing innovative investor relations practices to the marketplace?

Are the firm and the clients jointly providing innovative investor relations practices to the marketplace?

The Takeaway: A writer needs to be diligent in writing so that the reader need not be diligent in reading. More colloquially stated: A hard write is an easy read, and an easy write is a hard read.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Last month, Nielsen reported that “the average television viewer watches more than 151 hours of TV per month – an all-time high.”

That’s 35 hours a week in front of a television screen. Almost equivalent to a full-time job.

Because you are interested in writing, you probably watch far less than the average. But even if you watch very little, I offer you the advice that I offer to all writers: Spend more time each week reading good writing, in order to absorb English that’s worth emulating. Make this time available by watching less television, which fills your mind with the worst English.

When they hear this advice, most people stare at me. I can see two emotions in their eyes: (1) horror at recognizing the truth about television; and (2) a perverse refusal to take action. But a stalwart few accept the advice and follow it. Almost effortlessly, they become better writers.

The Takeaway: Reduce your weekly television viewing by several hours; spend those hours absorbing good English. This one tactic will improve your writing more than any other. If you would like a list of recommended writers, go to my profile and send me an email.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

First, second and third person (1)

Yesterday, The New York Times carried an article about the success of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, a bestselling book about a teenager’s suicide.

The article quoted the publisher:

“ ‘It was not a book where a whole house runs out and pushes like crazy, and you have to have success right away, because you spent all this money,’ said Benjamin Shrank, publisher of Razorbill. The company paid Mr. Asher a low six-figure advance for two books.”

Mr. Shrank’s sentence is unclear for two reasons:

First, he switches from third person (“a whole house runs out and pushes like crazy”) to second person (“you have to have success right away, because you spent all this money”). By the rules of grammar, a listener will conclude that Mr. Shrank’s “you” refers to someone other than the publishing house. The listener will remain confused until he guesses that Mr. Shrank is using bad grammar and is actually still referring to the publishing house.

Second, Mr. Shrank’s comment would have been much more natural and clear in first person. For example:

We did not have to run out and push like crazy. We could afford to wait for success because we had invested only a modest amount.

Novice writers often ask, “Why does grammar matter, so long as the meaning is clear?” The answer is that ungrammatical writing is usually not clear. Mr. Shrank’s sentence is just one example among billions.

The Takeaway: Pronouns and verbs constitute only two of the eight parts of speech. But these two cause more trouble than the other six; one reason is person. Be sure that every pronoun and verb is in the correct person. And don’t switch gratuitously from one person to another. Review your grammar book. If you are serious about writing, you will own one. I recommend Writing and Thinking, by Norman Foerster and J. M. Steadman, Jr.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Enunciation (1)

I promised that, from time to time, I would cover clear speaking in addition to clear writing.

Certainly you have noticed that we Americans have allowed our enunciation to slip. Some of us do not even know (or refuse to recognize) that good enunciation is important to communication. Here’s a remarkable example of poor enunciation:

My wife and I were hosting an open house (our house was on the market). While we were chatting with our guests, one guest told me she was a “spee theh.”

Me: I beg your pardon. I didn’t catch that.

Guest: I’m a spee thehpuh.

Me: I’m sorry – I still didn’t get it.

Guest: A spee thehpis.

Me: A speech therapist?

Guest: Vry. [Right.]

Me: So, you help people pronounce words more precisely and accurately?

Guest: Yeth. [Yes.]

Me: You’re not pulling my leg, are you?

Guest: No, no.

Me: So, if I came to you as a client and, for example, I was saying “spee theh” instead of “speech therapist,” could you teach me to pronounce it correctly?

Guest: Yeth.

Of course, this feckless speech therapist is an extreme case – and I chose this example for its dramatic effect. However, most of us are letting our enunciation slip to some extent. We are surrounded by bad examples (nowadays, even some TV newsreaders use poor enunciation), and we tend to “go along with the crowd” toward sloppier enunciation. For the most part, we do it unconsciously: we don’t even know how bad we sound.

The Takeaway: If you are worried that your enunciation may be slipping, make a habit of monitoring yourself. Professional public speakers do; they video-record their rehearsals and study the videos. They use video because video never lies; many people will lie to spare your feelings.* You can also audio-record yourself during a telephone call with a friend or a conference call in business (be careful not to violate any laws doing it). If you are like most of us, you will be surprised to hear how far your enunciation has slipped. After you get over that initial surprise, resolve to improve your enunciation. It’s not difficult; it’s mostly a matter of paying attention.

Free Offer: I’ve been keeping a running list of some of the more popular slurred and dropped consonants and syllables. For example, appoymin for appointment, assilly for absolutely, impornit for important, pah-cass for podcast, pry for probably, and roe for wrote. For a copy of the list, go here.

*Having coached hundreds of business speakers, I can tell you why most executives are poor speakers: they are surrounded by sycophants who tell them they do not need to rehearse.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Mantra overload (2)

From news reports at least, it appears that Barack Obama has appointed a fuzzy thinker to be chief information officer (CIO) of the U.S. Government. A year before he became CIO, Vivek Kundra (shown in photo above) used a disturbing number of mantras during an interview with The Wall Street Journal. He even managed to work three mantras into seven consecutive words: “I’m all about the cloud computing notion.” For me at least, that’s a record.

The Takeaway: In writing and in formal speaking (such as in a press interview), try to avoid using a lot of mantras. Mantra overload can make you sound stupid or lazy.