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    The Cash Language

    Wednesday, January 06, 2010

    A very long time ago, in a course in Old English literature, my professor often used the terms "mutability" and "immutability" when we discussed heroic verse. (Mutability means "prone to frequent change" and immutability, of course, mean the opposite: "not subject to change.")

    The heroes in this literature existed in a world of "mutability under heaven," a gloomy, chaotic, violent, battle-strewn world that could be put right only through "a consciousness of God's immutability," his laws governing sin and salvation - or something like that.

    Recently, while considering the albatross known as Standard English (SE), I found these two terms returning to mind. When we think of the conventions of SE, don't we treat them as the immutable laws of the language, handed down to us from above? Don't we perceive them as providing order to what would otherwise be a chaotic writing world?

    But of course, SE doesn't come to us from on high, not by a long shot. Its origins, in fact, are rather pedestrian, at least from I've been able to discover. SE came into being primarily because merchants in London way back in the 14th century needed a consistent or codified language to conduct business. Yes, that's right; we can thank moneymakers for SE.

    These merchants spoke primarily an East Midland dialect of English, so when it came to establishing a codified form of English, this particular dialect became the standard. There were other key influences, to be sure, but none were more important than this dialect.

    As the East Midland dialect gained prominence and status as the written standard, other regional dialects were relegated to use in daily conversation. That is, of course, still true today. The variations of English we each use in casual conversation are generally not the same as what we use in our writing. And while official documents were once written in Latin or French, that changed over time, too, with the standardization of this hybrid dialect.

    With this codification process in place, the natural development of English slowed down. It would, after all, be hard to codify a language if it were constantly undergoing significant changes. Dictionaries are the direct result of codification.

    To say that SE has experienced an incredible run is a gross understatement, considering that its forming dates back to the Middle Ages. And it is probably more important than ever in today's world. Just how important? Well, SE is the dialect of education and status in the United Kingdom, the United States, and beyond. The main purpose of our schooling has been to provide SE instruction. (Think of all of those composition and grammar books you had to deal with in school.) To be sure, our schools have provided math, science, and history instruction, but these disciplines have never been as important as SE instruction.

    SE is also considered the cash language, the language of commerce, used throughout much of the world to conduct business, set policy, and so on. It is the dialect that English language learners everywhere want to learn. Individuals in English-speaking countries who are not fluent in SE are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to career opportunities.

    Surprisingly, there aren't many grammatical differences between SE and other common dialects, and you may be aware of most, if not all, of them. (See my next blog entry.) Remember to always have on hand a business-writing handbook such as Write for Business to answer any questions about the conventions of SE. And by all means, find a trusted colleague who will check your workplace writing for correctness. Your future may depend on it.

    - Dave Kemper

    Ranking Editing "Hang Ups"

    Wednesday, December 02, 2009
    "What should you say on the phone: 'It is me' or 'It is I?' Maybe you should just hang up the phone and send a fax."

    - Laurie E. Rozakis, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style

    You can find top ten (or 20) lists covering just about anything: Top business schools, top crime novels, top angry comedians, most unusual pets,…even the most unusual Japanese chewing gums. Very funny. There are entire books devoted to lists; that's how popular they are. Some of these lists inform us (safest cars); others entertain us (just tune in to the David Letterman Show).

    I'm not sure why we're so attracted to lists. Do we have a deep-seated need to rank things or an innate desire to have information classified and pre-packaged? Certainly all of our technological gadgetry lends itself to classifying and ranking.

    Anyway…if you Google "most common errors in writing," you will (surprise, surprise) have instant access to any number of helpful lists. There are general-usage lists as well as more specific lists, such as one devoted exclusively to business letters and another devoted to accountants and their writing.

    One of the lists that I find most useful was compiled by Andrea A. Lunsford and Robert J. Connors. They analyzed the errors in 3,000 college-level papers as marked by college instructors, and compiled their list according to the frequency that certain errors appeared. Here are the first five errors that they identify:

    1. No comma after a longer introductory element.
      With a devil-may-care attitude and a bowl of chips Rico marched into his man cave to watch another Detroit Lions' loss.

      (A comma is needed after the long introductory prepositional phrase: With a devil-may-care attitude and a bowl of chips, Rico…)
    2. Vague pronoun reference.
      While Samantha talked with Yvonne, she offered advice about dealing with the Neanderthals in shipping.

      (As stated, it is unclear who is offering the advice. She should be replaced by Yvonne or Samantha, depending on who is the advice giver. Example: While talking with Yvonnne, Samantha offered advice…)
    3. No comma in a compound sentence.
      Mr. Peabody said he was truly humbled about his promotion yet he spent more than 10 minutes blathering about it.

      (A comma is needed before the coordinating conjunction yet.)
    4. Using the wrong word.
      Let their be no mistake about the sale's figures. Their awful.

      (The first their should be there; the second one should be they're.)
    5. No comma in a nonrestrictive element.
      J.J.'s Sandwich Shop which makes the best hard rolls ever now has delivery service.

      (The clause which makes the best hard rolls ever should be set off by commas because it offers unnecessary information.)

    Another useful list compiled by Maxine Hairston focuses on errors as viewed by business people. The top errors are the ones that bothered the participants the most. Scroll down to "The Non-Educators View of Grammatical Errors." Here are the first five errors that Hairston identifies:

    1. Nonstandard verb forms
      Anxious Inc. has went through two takeovers in the past three years.

      (The correct verb form is has gone.)
    2. Lack of subject-verb agreement
      Neither Boris nor Bruno are attending the wellness fair.

      (Singular subjects joined by nor take a singular verb - in this case, Neither Boris nor Bruno is…)
    3. Double negatives
      After carefully reviewing the new Web designs, we don't think none of them are cutting edge.

      (Any should replace none to avoid the double negative.)
    4. Objective pronoun as subject
      April and me will edit the new employee's manual.

      (Use the nominative pronoun I in the subject position: April and I will edit…)
    5. Sentence fragments
      HM Investments offers a great opportunity. If you're into high-risk, no-reward employment.

      (The fragment if you're into high-risk, no-reward employment should be connected to the sentence that comes before it: …great opportunity if you're…)

    Note: As you might guess, incorrect spelling is, far and away, the most frequent and obvious error and, thus, not included in either study.

    Do you use a list as a guide when checking your business writing for errors? If so, how closely does it match one or the other of these? Your business writing handbook (if you use one) may provide an editing checklist based on an error analysis. For example, the editing guide on pages 156-157 in Write for Business is based on the Lunsford and Conner study.

    Final Thought: According to grammar authority Constance Weaver, if you try to edit without using a top-ten (20) list, you may find yourself "falling into a big black hole of errors," not really knowing what to look for once you get past checking for spelling, capitalization, and end punctuation. If you need more convincing, check online for a list of the most compelling reasons to use a top-ten errors' list. I'd put your odds at finding one at one in twenty.

    - Dave Kemper

    A Self-Serving (or is it Selfserving) Perspective

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    How correct should you be in your business writing? The safe answer, of course, is perfectly correct, especially if you are of a certain age, and attended Catholic grade schools. Correctness, according to most nuns, was next to godliness. But times have changed, as have Catholic schools (where have all the nuns gone?) - and so has the way we communicate.

    We speak face to face, we text message, we tweet, we e-mail, we blog, we write letters, we write reports.… If you put the forms of communication on a continuum, the honest answer to the opening question might be, "That depends on the form."

    You can be a little ungrammatical when your communication is more spontaneous than deliberate, more informal than formal; but as you move up the scale, correctness becomes more of an issue.

    Do we expect error-free conversations in text messages? Of course not. What would constitute an error when texting, anyway? How about in e-mail? An error here or there in a message to a colleague shouldn't be cause for concern, whereas errors in an e-mail to a client or customer should be. How about a departmental memo? By all means, take care whenever your writing is exposed to multiple readers.

    But why this concern about correctness in the first place? Does it really matter if you misplace an apostrophe or use to in one sentence when you really mean too. Not if you ask me. But you'd get a different answer from the "correctness Nazis" out there, individuals who thinks that the world begins and ends with perfect punctuation and grammar.

    Some people say that it's a matter of clarity - a missing or misplaced comma can change the meaning of a sentence, or a shift in verb tense may cause serious confusion. There are plenty of books that address slip ups like these. Eats, Shoots and Leaves is one. This #1 New York Times bestseller has the following subtitle: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

    The title, of course, shows how a misplaced comma can completely skew an idea. It should read "Eats Shoots and Leaves," describing an animal's eating habits. But if you put this idea within the context of a complete text, the mistake becomes far less an issue. We would get the message. Am I condoning this error? No, I'm just saying that these things happen, and they seldom deprive the reader of following a writer's line of thinking.

    Other people say that the issue is a matter of respect - that providing clear, accurate copy shows that you truly value the reader's time and interest. It's hard to dispute this argument. But no one in his or her right mind would send out an important letter or share a quarterly report without making sure that the copy is clear and correct, even if that means having a professional copyeditor check the writing for errors. (Remember the communication continuum.)

    The best argument in my mind is completely self-serving. You want your letters and reports to be clean because it makes you look good. Image may not be everything in the business world, but it's right up there. Making a good impression in your writing may help you secure a job, and later, help you advance your career. For this reason alone, pay attention to correctness.

    Final Thoughts
    There is a time and place for everything, including checking for errors, and that time is late in the development of a piece of writing. Focus on your ideas first. Once you're satisfied that you have something worthwhile to say, then carefully attend to the accuracy of your writing. It makes no sense to do otherwise.

    "We will sell no wine before its time" was once a successful slogan in the wine industry. Turn that a bit - "I will not check my writing for errors before it's time" - and the slogan will serve you well as an editing reminder.

    - Dave Kemper

    Ghastly Gaffes

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    You know quality workmanship when you see it: a car precisely engineered for performance and comfort; a flower arrangement providing a perfect balance of subtlety and splash; a company brochure presenting a clear and compelling story about a new product. Good workmanship holds your attention and leaves a lasting impression.

    Naturally, when you are crafting an important piece of business writing, your workmanship should be at its best to ensure that all of your ideas are clear and read smoothly. An awkward expression or careless choice of words, like an unforgiving soup stain on a tie, takes on far more importance than it should, sometimes becoming the only thing that the reader remembers.

    Part of the crafting process involves checking early drafts for carelessly, sometimes embarrassingly, worded sentences - stains of the worst kind. Here are a few to watch for:

    If you've said it once, you've said it enough: Avoid redundancies in your sentences, or words or phrases used together that mean essentially the same thing. In Fine Print, James Kilpatrick provides these examples: false misrepresentations, a free complimentary dinner, revert back, and reply back. He cites a telemarketing company policy stating that the company will "fire any employees who make false misrepresentations." (As opposed to true misrepresentations?).

    Location, location, location: Do not misplace modifiers in your sentences; a modifier in the wrong location can create some embarrassing images, such as this one cited by Kilpatrick: "Dave helped pass a constitutional amendment to regulate nude dancing through the House." (Lucky House members.) Here's another one: "The commercial advertised an assortment of combs for active people with unbreakable teeth." (People with unbreakable teeth?)

    Note: In most cases, you can correct a misplaced modifier by simply moving it to the proper location: "Dave helped pass a constitutional amendment through the House to regulate nude dancing."

    Missing in action: Avoid dangling modifiers, or descriptive phrases that appear to modify the wrong word or a word that is missing from the sentence. Here's an example: "Having committed to meeting with us, our regular attendance would be appreciated." (Who did the committing?) Here's another example from The Elements of Style: "Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap." (Sorry about the poor health.)

    Note: To correct this problem, simply recast the sentence, which may mean adding a subject: "Having committed to meeting with us, Ms. Brown deserves our regular attendance."

    Give me your tired, your poor, your overused expressions: Watch for cliches, or overused expressions, in your writing. Readers tend to tune out if sentence after sentence is full of cliches. Note that this cliche-loaded sentence really doesn't say much: We need all hands on deck because we have a tough road ahead. Here's another example: Alpha Design decided to stick its neck out rather than throw in the towel.

    Note: To correct this problem, simply reword the sentence using plain English or come up with an original way to express the idea: "Everyone will need to work hard on the new project."

    Now You Try
    Rewrite the following sentences to eliminate any redundancies, misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers, or cliches. Afterward, compare rewrites with a colleague.

    • My final conclusion is that we should reply back to National Auto's attorney.
    • If we put our best foot forward, we may meet the deadline with time to spare.
    • Our engineers are qualified experts with years of academic schooling at leading universities.
    • The flight attendants served cookies to the passengers after warming them.
    • After standing in line for five hours, the manager announced that all tickets had been sold.
    • Using a computer to help diagnose engine problems, the company car was repaired by Oscar at Perfection Auto.
    • Shavonn walked into the committee meeting while the managers were discussing budget cuts by mistake.
    • President Obama shouldn't touch the oil-reserve issue with a ten foot pole.

    Final Thoughts
    Writer William Zinsser calls writing a "negative game" because "very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the second or third time." That's why it is so important to review your writing for sentence problems, including the embarrassing ones identified above, before submitting it.

    - Dave Kemper

    Red Light . . . Green Light

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    Using basic punctuation is like swimming or riding a bike: once you learn how, you never forget. Take periods and question marks, for example. You've internalized their uses so that placing them in your writing becomes automatic, much like kicking your legs when swimming.

    But as you know, not all punctuation marks are created equal. Semicolons, colons, commas, dashes, parentheses - these marks can be confusing. For some (like the semicolon), it is because you rarely use them; for others (like the comma), it's because there are so many uses.

    Of course, when you have questions about punctuation, you can refer to a business-writing handbook such as Write for Business or to an online grammar guide for rules and examples. What you might find equally helpful, however, are explanations such as the entertaining ones Patricia T. O'Conner provides in Woe is I (Riverhead Books, New York). She approaches punctuation as road markers, if you will, that direct traffic so readers don't get lost along a stretch of writing.

    Here are her opening explanations for each mark; read and enjoy. (The examples are mine.)

    • The period is the red light at the end of a sentence.
    • Late afternoon meetings stink.
    • "Don't take commas for granted. They're like yellow traffic lights. If you ignore one, you could be in for a bumpy ride."
    • Oscar, tell me how you stay awake.
    • "If a comma is a yellow light and a period is a red light, the semicolon is a flashing red - one of these lights you drive through after a brief pause."
    • By 4:15, I almost always feel the weary dismals coming on; a cup of forty weight is the only remedy.
    • "But remember that a colon is an abrupt stop, almost like a period. Use one only if you want your sentences to brake completely."
    • For productive meetings, follow these guidelines: schedule them for the morning, put a time limit on discussions, and offer frequent flyer miles for participation.
    • "The question mark is the raised eyebrow at the end of a sentence."
    • Who will head the doughnut committee?
    • "The exclamation mark is like the horn on your car - use it only when you have to."
    • Yes! Another pie chart!
    • For parentheses: "Once in awhile you may need an aside, a gentle interruption to tuck information into a sentence or between sentences."
    • He sat next to me and proceeded to describe (in graphic detail) his bout with the flu.
    • "We could do with fewer dashes. In fact, the dash is probably even more overused these days than the exclamation point - and I admit to being an offender myself."
    • She stated the words I hate to hear - next quarter's quotas.

    O'Conner's engaging text also covers all aspects of grammar, from forming possessives to subject-verb agreement, from using pronouns to understanding commonly mixed pairs of words. It deserves a space on your desk, next to a dictionary and writing handbook.

    Here are three other punctuation and grammar guides to consider, all written with a pleasing mix of irreverence, panache, and insight:

    1. The New Well-Tempered Sentence (Ticknor & Fields) by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
    2. Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Gotham Books) by Lynne Truss
    3. Lapsing into a Comma (Contemporary Books) by Bill Walsh

    Final Thoughts: Columnist Russell Baker offers another helpful explanation of punctuation. He says it "plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard."

    No matter what metaphor works for you, just remember that punctuation is there to serve rather than befuddle you.

    - Dave Kemper