Thursday, February 28, 2013

Don’t abuse the conjunction “so”

Many Americans abuse the conjunction so. For example, they use it at the beginning of a response to a question:
Interviewer: Let’s go on to another topic: broad-base tax vs. single tax. What is your position?
Interviewee: So broad-base is fairer and is more conducive to community prosperity.

The interviewee is insinuating that he has already presented, or at least mentioned, the evidence on which he bases his position. He resorts to insinuation because he knows that a direct statement would sound ridiculous to the interviewer and to intelligent members of the audience:
Interviewer: Let’s go on to another topic: broad-base tax vs. single tax. What is your position?
Interviewee: That’s why I believe that broad-base is fairer and is more conducive to community prosperity.
In 2012, this usage began to spread rapidly; now you hear it almost every day. It annoys intelligent listeners and makes them suspicious of the speaker's honesty.

The Takeaway: Using the conjunction so to insinuate that you have presented or mentioned evidence is a childish trick. If you wish to be taken seriously by intelligent adults, try to avoid imitating this puerile nonsense.

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Cliches, mixed metaphors, and Thomas L. Friedman

“A very clever friend” of journalist Jonathan Chait sent him a column by Thomas L. Friedman (pictured above), “edited down to nothing but mixed metaphors and cliches...” It’s amusing. Here’s an excerpt:

A wake-up call’s mother is unfolding.  At the other end is a bell, which is telling us we have built a house at the foot of a volcano.

Read the rest here.

The Takeaway: Have a great day.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Don’t abuse the adverb “though”

Many Americans abuse the adverb though by gratuitously adding it to a response to a question:
Person A: What’s your son majoring in?

Person B: He’s majoring in electrical engineering. He’s doing really well, though.

It’s natural for a proud parent to report, even without direct prompting, that his child is doing well in college. However, B’s addition of though suggests an irrational subtext: B imagines that A asked the question maliciously, in order to set up an opportunity to say that B’s son has chosen too difficult a major for him.

To defend his child against this imagined attack, B uses though to insinuate, “And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking electrical engineering is a tough major. Well, it is. But in spite of that, he’s doing just fine, Mr. Smarty Pants.”

B senses that such a direct statement would immediately warn A that B is irrational, so B resorts to insinuation in an attempt to somehow make his point without revealing his irrationality.

It seems to me that many Americans, chiefly women, frequently use insinuation to defend themselves against imagined threats, criticisms and disagreements. Intelligent listeners see through the insinuation and head for the exits.

The Takeaway: Many speakers use the adverb though sneakily. It is all too easy to unconsciously absorb and imitate this habit. Always try to think before you speak.

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 18, 2013

When using PowerPoint, think like a writer

Many articles and books have been written about how to deliver better PowerPoint presentations. Recently I saw an unusually fine editorial on this topic. I recommend it to anyone who is not already attracting overflow crowds. It’s a Computerworld editorial by Mike Elgan and it’s titled “Give killer presentations: Think like a writer.”
  • Mr. Elgan starts out by saying that most presenters are delivering “soul-killing dreck.” (You and I know he’s right.)
  • Then he asks, “Have you ever wondered how good novelists can hold a reader's attention for hours at a time with nothing but words on a page?”
  • Then, using fewer than 1,000 words, Mr. Elgan tells you “how to apply skills from the craft of writing to make your presentations enjoyable and unforgettable.”
I’ve been a speechwriter for 38 years. I know that nobody has ever told you what Mike Elgan tells you in this editorial.

Want a sample? Here’s one:
PowerPoint presentations usually involve a lot of pretending. The speaker pretends to be excited. The audience pretends to be interested. Everybody is faking it.

Most collections of slides are packed with fake images – stock photography, clip art and other inherently false imagery.
Here’s another:
Most presenters act like their audience is made up of information-harvesting robots, not human beings.
One more:
(One of the reasons most presentations are so bad is that speakers use euphemism and jargon because they think it sounds “professional.” It doesn’t. It’s amateur-hour communication.)
I rarely say, “You gotta read this one.” But I’m saying it now. Read it here.

The Takeaway: In your PowerPoint presentations, you can use the same attention-getting and attention-holding skills that novelists use. Learn how here.

NOTE: I have no business relationship with Mike Elgan.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The adjective “everyday” vs. the adverb “every day”

A common mistake in English is to confuse the adjective everyday with the adverbial phrase every day. Even mighty media outlets such as Reuters make this mistake occasionally. For example:

Everyday, content creators are producing more journalism, more think-pieces, more interactive graphics, more photo galleries, more tweets, more slideshows, more videos, more GIFs... (Source) (Boldface added)


When the reader encounters “Everyday” at the beginning of the sentence, he may assume that “Everyday” modifies “content creators.” But then he considers the comma after “Everyday” and assumes that “Everyday” modifies the verb “are producing.”* This second assumption is probably correct.

However, the word everyday is an adjective; as such, it should not be used to modify a verb. The writer should have used the adverbial phrase every day. For more on everyday vs. every day, see Grammarist.)

The Takeaway: Strive to use proper grammar and diction. Although your mistakes may not always make your writing unclear, they will hurt your credibility if they are frequent.

See disclaimer.

*Or is a sentence adverb.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Unintentional humor from the executive suite

I’ve heard this story now and then over the years. I’ve also seen it on the Web. Perhaps you have, too. Whether true or fictitious,* it’s pretty funny:

As director of communications, I was asked to prepare a memo reviewing our company’s training programs and materials. In the body of the memo one of the sentences mentioned the “pedagogical approach” used by one of the training manuals. The day after I routed the memo to the executive committee, I was called into the HR Director’s office, and was told that the executive VP wanted me out of the building by lunch. When I asked why, I was told that she wouldn’t stand for “perverts” (pedophiles?) working in her company. Finally he showed me her copy of the memo, with her demand that I be fired, with the word “pedagogical” circled in red. The HR Manager was fairly reasonable, and once he looked the word up in his dictionary and made a copy of the definition to send to my boss, he told me not to worry. He would take care of it. Two days later a memo to the entire staff came out, directing us that no words which could not be found in the local Sunday newspaper could be used in company memos. A month later, I resigned. In accordance with company policy, I created my resignation letter by pasting words together from the Sunday paper. (Source)

The Takeaway: Have a great Monday.

See disclaimer.

*If you have proof that this really happened, I would be interested in seeing it. Please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Start with Draft 0, not Draft 1

In our last post, we referred you to the blog of Erik Bergman, who stated a crucial truth in an eloquent way:

Most early drafts are a writer’s half-blind exploration of what he or she wants to say but hasn’t yet hit upon.

In contrast, many writers believe that a first draft can and should be perfect. As a result, they frighten themselves and they procrastinate. When the deadline is terrifyingly near, they dash off an inadequate first draft. They lose twice: they suffer mental agony and they deliver a poor product.

If this sounds like you, don’t be embarrassed. We’ve all done it.

A quick and easy way out

Cheer up. Here’s what to do.

In your word processor, set up a standard document. Format it your favorite way, as to font, spacing, margins, header, footer, and so on. (If you already have such a document, make a copy of it.)

Name this document “Draft 0.” Then open it and type this (or your own version) at the head of the first page:

This is Draft 0. It’s only a half-blind exploration of what I want to say. It won’t be difficult; nobody’s going to see it but me. I’ll just get my thoughts down, rough and ready. Then I’ll start on Draft 1.

I’ve been starting with a Draft 0 for more than 25 years. Many professional writers use this technique. It works. I don’t know who first thought of it, but I salute him.

The Takeaway: Be kind to yourself. Call your first draft “Draft 0.” Figuratively close your eyes and blast through it. Then start on Draft 1.

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Finding the right word

In several posts, I have described skills that you can acquire quickly. In several other posts, I have described skills that you can acquire only slowly.*

Unfortunately, finding the right word, the exactly right word, the best word for what you want to say, is one of the slowly acquired skills.

On this topic, I yield the floor to another blogger, Erik Bergman, “Word Surgeon,” who has published a brief, thoughtful, candid post about finding the right word:

Why it’s important.

Why it’s often difficult.

How to do it.

How an editor can help.

Here’s the post.

The Takeaway: If you care about clarity, you must care about finding the right word. That means you must regard your first draft as, in Mr. Bergman’s phrase, a “half-blind exploration” of what you want to say. That in turn means you must be willing to write at least one more draft. Or five or ten. Like it or not, these attitudes are what differentiates a pro from an amateur.

See disclaimer.

*Whenever budding writers asked veteran speechwriter Mel Grayson how long it takes to write a speech, he would usually reply, “Twenty years.”