The Whisker Metaphor


No, I’m not above pandering, so this week – in addition to targeting folks who care about perfecting their writing – I’m going after the Internet’s cat-crazy crowd. The word that pertains to both groups? “Whiskers.”

In my workshops I use several metaphors to emphasize that a strength of successful writers is an ever-expanding catalog of words and situations that trigger extra care, and one of those metaphors is the warning system that keeps cats out of danger. When they start to enter a narrow space and feel the ends of their whiskers tingling, they back off.

So let’s say you write the following email at work. It communicates clearly enough, but because your recipient is a stickler for quality writing, you reread it. How many times do your whiskers react?

I can’t decide whether or not to tap Debbie for leadership of the Project. She did a very good job last year, but Lou seems like a great option. Whom do you think would be the best choice?

The whisker warning system

I see six triggers here:
1. Whether or not. On occasion we want to add “or not” for emphasis, but generally “or not” is redundant. “Whether” does the job.
2. The capital “P” in Project. Promiscuous capitalization can make writing seem less mature, and here – because we are not giving the formal name of the project – we want lowercase.
3. Very good. As noted in previous posts, “very” often signals that the next word can be improved. We might want something like “excellent” or “superb,” or we might want to specify why Debbie’s handling was outstanding. Maybe she got everyone involved or she kept everyone mindful of the project’s central goals.
4. Option. This one’s a hairsplitter. If we already have expressed one possibility, the additional one is an alternative.
5. Whom. A trick I’ve mentioned to decide between “who” and “whom” is isolating the key words and determining if you’d write “he would be best” or “him would be best.” Clearly, we want “he” (the word without the “m”), so we want “who,” the word without the “m.”
6. Best. Think “good,” “better,” “best.” “Best” is the superlative form, for three or more, but here we are considering two people, so we want the comparative form, “better.”

Whether you think of whiskers, antennae, alarms, or caution lights, the key is committing to continually building your early warning system for those messages that merit added attention. With that asset in hand, you might refine the original email to read something like this:

I can’t decide whether to tap Debbie for leadership of the project. She got everyone involved last year, but Lou seems like a great alternative. Who do you think would be the better choice?

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at

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