Yada, Yada

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Although these posts are mainly geared to writing in the workplace, let’s look at common speech for three symptoms of failures to communicate concisely:

1. Blah, blah, blah. When we are telling a story or explaining something and we insert “blah, blah, blah,” we may or may not be using the phrase well. If we are commenting on something that was boring or wordy, “blah, blah, blah” communicates. But when we catch ourselves getting longwinded, saying “blah, blah, blah” only calls greater attention to our failure to organize our thoughts or cut down on the details.

(Granted, in the age of Seinfeld, “yada, yada” served as a cute substitute that may have deflected the acknowledgment that we were communicating inefficiently, but the last Seinfeld episode appeared in 1998.)

2. Over and over again – sometimes used in repeated over and over again, making it even worse. The irony here is that this wording often crops up when pundits are commenting on a political point that has become stale, but the pundits are guilty of making the point even more tiresome with their fat phrasing. Why not opt for “over and over,” without the “again,” or just “repeatedly”? (The fill in the official has said repeatedly that he fill in the denial.)

3. So to make a long story short. Ugh (see blah, blah, blah). And, of course, when we utter this cliché, we are vulnerable to someone heckling us with “Too late!”

The writing advantage

Yes, we are all guilty of communicating inefficiently when we talk, but the writing process gives us the opportunity to perfect our communications in two primary ways:

  1. We have time to organize our thoughts.
  2. We can edit our work.

You can go to http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml to learn more about my workshops on writing in the workplace, individual coaching, editing, and handbook – 100+ Instant Writing Tips. Thank you.

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“Opposites Attract”

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On occasion we get lured into saying the opposite of what we mean. I was reminded of this a few days ago when I read the following sentence in an article extolling the many strengths of the hit TV show This Is Us: “You can’t underestimate the quality of the performances.” Hmm. Is that supposed to be a compliment?

What the writer meant to express was “You can’t overestimate the quality of the performances.” That is to say, in a rather figurative sense, no matter how high you go in praising the acting, even greater accolades would be deserved.

(“Underestimate” would be used correctly, however, in “We anticipated completing our project in March, but we underestimated the complexity of the final phase.”)

A similar misstep involves saying “I could care less,” as in “I just learned the boss can’t attend my retirement party, but I could care less.” No, it’s the opposite. Surely, the speaker means that, having no particular affection for her boss, she “couldn’t care less.”

And here’s a tricky one: “Clyde inferred that the project will miss the deadline.” That was correctly written if Clyde was drawing meaning from something he heard or read. But if Clyde was delivering a cryptic message, he was implying. Those who drew conclusions from his hinting were inferring (making inferences).

So if you merely imply something, I need to infer what you mean.

As writers, we want to ensure that we are always taking our readers in the right direction.

You can go to http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml to learn more about my workshops on writing in the workplace, individual coaching, editing, and handbook – 100+ Instant Writing Tips. Thank you.

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The Semicolon’s Dual Identity

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Having covered the colon the past two weeks, we can now progress to its poorly understood cousin*: the semicolon. And continuing a familial theme, does it seem that if a period and comma had a kid, it would look like a semicolon? In truth, that makes sense because a semicolon performs as a hybrid of the two.

More than a comma

Sometimes we write sentences that can tax the reader because they contain elements and sub-elements, like this: Each floor of the firm’s offices has a distinct color scheme: navy, medium gray, and pearl, khaki, black, and brick, and charcoal, black, and aqua.

Clear? Congrats if you grasped all that in one read, but note how the semicolon can come to the rescue: … navy, medium gray, and pearl; khaki, black, and brick; and charcoal, black, and aqua. By using “more than a comma” at the end of each floor’s color scheme, we are able to spoon-feed our reader.

A similar illustration of the value of semicolons is when we cite strings of names and positions: Our new officers are Ava Arnold, president; Brett Barnham, vice president; Craig Conners, treasurer; Diane Dixon, associate treasurer; and Evie Earle, secretary. Employing semicolons, instead of just relying on a blur of commas, enables us to write more clearly.

Less than a period

Sometimes the close relationship between two sentences presents a different opportunity to trot out the semicolon: This year’s conference will be in Atlanta; next year’s is in Denver. Another example: More than 600 runners turned out for the event; no injuries were reported.

Added clarifications

1. * Calling the colon and semicolon “cousins” was tongue-in-cheek; their functions are unrelated.
2. Unlike periods and commas, colons and semicolons always go outside quotation marks.
3. You might call the “more-than-a-comma” use of the semicolon functional. It helps the reader decipher an otherwise cumbersome sentence. The “less-than-a-period” use might be called stylistic because it is simply a choice. Generally, we could instead opt for a period or a conjunction like “and” or “but.”
4. When we use a semicolon stylistically, we usually do not use a conjunction; the semicolon can do the whole job.

You can go to http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml to learn more about my workshops on writing in the workplace, individual coaching, editing, and handbook – 100+ Instant Writing Tips. Thank you.

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Keys to Success II

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Last week we looked at a few virtues of the colon: its ability to lend clarity or emphasis to a sentence and, on occasion, act as a substitute for the unexciting verb “to be.” Today we’ll round out our look at this unsung punctuation mark with a point about its correct use.

So the question is: Do we make the first letter following a colon uppercase or lowercase?

See what I did there? I followed the colon with a complete sentence, so I – quite logically – made the “D” in “Do” uppercase. And in my opening sentence, because the section starting with “its” is not a complete sentence, the “i” is lowercase. Let’s show that distinction again:

Two of Joan’s contributions to the staff retreat particularly impressed me: her deft moderation of the panel discussion and her valuable context-setting before the PowerPoint presentation.

Two of Joan’s contributions to the staff retreat particularly impressed me: She deftly moderated the panel discussion, and she provided valuable context before the PowerPoint presentation.

One exception

Note, however, that when the section following a colon is a short complete sentence, we are allowed to start with a capital or lowercase letter. Either of these is considered correct:

We have reached a decision: Our winner is Jack.
We have reached a decision: our winner is Jack.

And what makes a sentence “short”? I wouldn’t know because I reword to avoid the dilemma, but feel free to set your own rule of thumb.

You can go to http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml to learn more about my workshops on writing in the workplace, individual coaching, editing, and handbook – 100+ Instant Writing Tips. Thank you.

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Keys to Success

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Our computer keyboard isn’t the same as that of an old typewriter, but one constant is the seldom-used colon/semicolon key. Do you use it with confidence? Do you use it at all? Because Rodney Dangerfield probably would have said the colon and semicolon don’t get much respect, I’ll try to build their brand over the next few weeks.

A few days ago, I came across a headline on the op-ed page that I had to read several times to understand: Big challenges in mayoral race are the people too poor to care. Huh?

I finally figured out how to make sense of the headline and that the op-ed was addressing a sad fact: The percentage of people below the poverty line in Cleveland’s inner city is steadily increasing while the percentage of registered voters who exercise that right is alarmingly decreasing. Therefore, the election this November might suffer from an apathetic citizenry.

Aha. Finally understanding the headline, I saw many ways to reword it for clarity, and one of them was using a colon: Big challenge in mayoral race: The people may be too poor to care.

A helpful alternative to “to be”

If you use a colon only when “announcing” a list, you might want to consider how effectively the colon can clean up a clumsy headline or make a sentence like the following punchier: The two interns we are hiring after their graduations are Ann Armstrong and Burt Boyd. That sentence is weak because it falls back on “are” twice, and the verb “to be” (“are,” “is,” “was,” “have been,” etc.) lends no zip to our writing.  So why not revise slightly with a little help from the colon? We are hiring two interns after their graduations: Ann Armstrong and Burt Boyd. 

You can go to http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml to learn more about my workshops on writing in the workplace, individual coaching, editing, and handbook – 100+ Instant Writing Tips. Thank you.

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Togetherness

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In recognition of the lack of cohesion in our country right now – and in recognition of Black History Month – the above photo seemed apt. Now, on to business.

How would you refine the following sentence?

Our Department and the Human Resources folks are working together in a joint collaboration to shake-up the formula for the Winter staff retreat, and use the event to spark more teamwork.

Capitalization and punctuation

1. Every capital letter, after the “O” to start the sentence, should be lowercase. We need initial caps in department names only when giving the official name, such as “Human Resources Department.” And the seasons are always lowercase – unless, of course, they appear in a title (e.g., “our annual Winter Wonderland event”).
2. The hyphen in “shake-up” is wrong because we’re not talking about “a shake-up,” as in “a shake-up of our staff.” Here it’s two separate words: “shake” and “up.”
3. The comma after “retreat” is not needed because we don’t have a new subject and verb – only a new verb, “use.”

My real motive

But those distractions were just decoys. I wanted to challenge you to catch the redundancy in “together,” “joint,” and “collaboration.” We need to watch out for using words like “joint,” “collaborate,” “share,” “mutual,” and “together” … well, together. Often, just one will suffice. So the edited sentence might look like this:

Our department and the human resources folks are collaborating to shake up the formula for the winter staff retreat and use the event to spark more teamwork.

You can go to http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml to learn more about my workshops on writing in the workplace, individual coaching, editing, and handbook – 100+ Instant Writing Tips. Thank you.

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Dictionary Dabbling

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The Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2016 was post-truthdenoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Meanwhile, Merriam Webster led off its top 10 for 2016 with “surreal.” And now, of course, we already have a contender for 2017 recognition in “alternative facts.”

But let’s put all the surrealism and politics aside and contemplate two aspects of “alternative facts” pertaining to correctness.

Point 1. Is anything wrong with this sentence? We have two alternatives for our program.

Alternatives isn’t quite right because to have an alternative we need a starting point. For example, “We were thinking of a panel discussion, but now we have an alternative.” Our first idea was the starting point, and then we developed another idea.

So the distinction between options and alternatives is that options are merely choices while alternatives are additional choices after the first is established. Therefore, the sentence above should have been We have two options for our program.

Point 2. In business writing many folks like using the word data even when facts would be just as apt. But I use data sparingly because it has a dual identity. It can be interpreted as singular or plural. (Do you write The data suggests or The data suggest? The data is or The data are?)

Discussing this thorny singular/plural predicament further would make for an overly long blog and probably clarify little, so the main point is that we save ourselves time and trouble whenever we can use facts (or information or statistics or numbers) instead of data.

The moral of the story

Think twice before using alternatives. Don’t hesitate to use facts (and I mean that in more ways than one).

You can go to http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml to learn more about my workshops on writing in the workplace, individual coaching, editing, and handbook – 100+ Instant Writing Tips. Thank you.

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Trust Me

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Is this correct? I shouldn’t have believed Pam’s story, but I guess I’m too trustworthy.

How about this? When Pete explained why he arrived late, I was suspect.

What? You think they’re both wrong? You don’t trust me?

Okay. You caught me red-handed. They are both incorrect, so let’s review the common confusion.

We shouldn’t say or write trustworthy when we really mean trusting, as in the sample above. Someone we have faith in to tell the truth or behave honorably is trustworthy. But if we find nearly everyone trustworthy, perhaps we are too trusting.

Knowing when to use suspect vs. suspicious isn’t much harder, but the explanation is longer because of multiple meanings. Bear with me.
• Suspicious can describe both our attitude toward someone who is behaving questionably or the object of our suspicion.
Suspect, as an adjective, applies only to the object of our suspicion. For example, I found Polly’s motives suspect. (So we were suspicious of her motives.)
• And, of course, suspect is a noun: The police now have a suspect in custody. 

You can trust me

So here are five correct uses of today’s words. Really.
We elected Al as treasurer because he is so trustworthy.
Brad says he is generally trusting until he has evidence that he should be wary.
Craig’s enthusiasm for every one of Diane’s ideas seems suspect.
Craig’s enthusiasm for every one of Diane’s ideas seems suspicious.
Elaine is suspicious of Frank’s claim that he graduated high school at 16.

You can go to http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml to learn more about my workshops on writing in the workplace, individual coaching, editing, and handbook – 100+ Instant Writing Tips. Thank you.

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Fine Points II

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Pick the preferred word in each case.

1. I have (continually/continuously) been improving my wardrobe.
2. At the meeting we solved one problem but then could get no (farther/further).
3. Bruce was (champing/chomping) at the bit to refute what Kirk was claiming.
4. Although the practice is risky, I have decided to (lend/loan) my son-in-law money to buy a new car.

Your score

We know that word use changes over time, and one kind of change is a softening of some distinctions. So feel free to disagree, but I think in all four of these cases straying from original uses is not serious. In other words, you scored 100 on the quiz. Congratulations! But if you want to know what fussy folks (like me) would do, here you go.

The stickler point of view

1. Continually means that something keeps happening, but intermittently. (Zoe continually makes remarks that are politically incorrect.) Continuously means unceasing, like our pulse. (The alarm rang continuously for a full hour.)
(Note that continuous can also be used to describe something spatial, such as a continuous line – an unbroken one.)
2. A purist would use further in #2, because we’re being conceptual, and farther for something that can truly be measured, such as mileage. (The ice storm prevented me from driving any farther.)
3. You and I chomp, but when we use the expression in #3 we are referring to the action of a horse, and horses champ. So the original phrase is champing at the bit.
4. Using loan as a verb is widely accepted, but sticklers would say or write that they are going to lend their son-in-law money or give him a loan.

Distinctions about distinctions

We are in a gray area here, and beyond that, there are shades of gray. For example, some people can’t stand hearing irregardless, and I certainly agree that although irregardless is marginally acceptable, it’s much better form to stick with regardless. But the four distinctions above are far less important.

You can go to http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml to learn more about my workshops on writing in the workplace, individual coaching, editing, and handbook – 100+ Instant Writing Tips. Thank you.

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Making Headlines

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A major online news source committed two errors in one headline. Do you see them?

John Avlon Discusses George Washington’s Farewell Speech and it’s Relevance Today

Both mistakes are in it’s. One is the apostrophe. Although we were taught the difference between it’s and its around third grade, some of us still slip on this black ice because the rule is paradoxical. Yes, we generally use apostrophes to show possession (Jane’s car, employees’ suggestions, children’s toys), but we do not use apostrophes in possessive pronouns (ours, hers, his, theirs, etc.). So the possessive form of it is its. (Of course, it’s is correct when we mean it is or it has, as in It’s been a while.)

The second error was probably not explained in third grade. Among the complicated rules for using uppercase in titles and headlines, one is that “important” words (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) get an initial cap even when they’re short. So we want It, Its, Is, Be, Can, Are, My, See, Do, etc., even when they’re not the first or last word in a title or headline.

(For this reason, it is safer and quicker to treat subject lines of emails as ordinary phrases, not titles. Why waste time figuring out which words get initial caps when capitalization rules are so tricky?)

You can go to http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml to learn more about my workshops on writing in the workplace, individual coaching, editing, and handbook – 100+ Instant Writing Tips. Thank you.

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