Enjoy your summer! And keep the holiday reading easy.

the power of words

July 14, 2010

Well, on my poetry blog I posted this picture with the title, and we thought words were so important. Clearly you know these are not aborigines!

But I thought it might be a good time to drag out the good old Spell-checker Poem.

Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rare lea ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect awl the weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.

I have just read a paragraph so bad that I am going to deconstruct the whole thing for you. It’s only a drop in the ocean, too: I could do the whole article if there weren’t so much of it.

Here at Text Pixels we realise the oil spill in the Gulf is a very serious matter. It is far more serious, in its urgent immediacy and need for action, than the chronic low-grade grammar spills that occur all around us every day. The particles of oil floating freeform in the sea are more hazardous to life than rogue particles flung about in a sentence.

And yet, we do wish that the people of the Guardian would use smaller quantities of sentence dispersant! Like oil particles, these sentence particles, badly used, stick to things and make the clear water of meaning all dirty. Look at this:

The oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico is even worse than previously thought, with twice as much oil spewing into the ocean than earlier estimations suggested, figures show.

First, that flotsam afterthought, “figures show.” Technically, it is the subject of the sentence: “Figures show [that] the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico is even worse than previously thought, with twice as much oil spewing into the ocean than earlier estimations suggested.” See? But they can’t say that, because it is a newspaper. In their way of doing things, the oil spill – the main point of the sentence – must be the first phrase.

Somebody else might have thought this made “figures show” less important – or possibly important, but the subject of another sentence – but no. In newspaperland, it can just be tacked onto the end.

It’s not good for the English language. It’s not good for helping people to develop a habit of clear thinking. But we’re used to it.

But “twice as much than”? What is the point of this? It’s not just a crap style convention, it’s wrong. And it’s wrong in a stupid, pointless way.

Yes, I know you can just about decipher the meaning of the sentence. But the sentence isn’t helping, is it. And why listen to people who clearly aren’t listening to themselves?

But even if you’ve given this sentence the benefit of the doubt, the next one will leave you literally – yes, literally, not just figuratively – not knowing how much oil is pouring into the gulf, figures show. Here:

Latest estimates from scientists studying the disaster for the US government suggest [that] [sic] 160-380 million litres (42-100 million US gallons) of oil have already entered the Gulf. Most experts believe there is more oil gushing into the sea in an hour than officials originally said was spilling in an entire day.

First, a small point. If you “suggest 160-380 million litres” you are making a suggestion of it. You are proposing it. “Say, what about 160-380 million litres this evening? Either that or a movie, I don’t mind which.” What this sentence is trying to do is to suggest that something is happening. That these litres of oil are doing something.

Secondly. I know that I am a “words person” and not a “numbers person,” but doesn’t this mean that it is less like “twice as much than” and more like “24 times more as”? Which is it?

In fact: what are these figures, that dangle precariously off the edge of a sentence and “show” us things? Perhaps the last sentence in the paragraph will show us what they mean. But no:

It is the third – and perhaps not the last – time the Obama administration has had to increase its estimate of how much oil is gushing.

But it is. It is the last time the Obama administration has had to increase its estimate. It may not be the last time it will, but that is a different thing.

In fact, this awful paragraph hasn’t conveyed any actual information at all! And the rest of the article goes on the same way. I for one hope that, when the Guardian needs to report on Obama’s revised figures, it will take all necessary precautions to avoid another meaning spill like this one. It’s taken half the morning to clear it all up.

cut the copyeditor

May 25, 2010

Better yet, why not just let any old person do it. Get someone who doesn’t know any grammar. Then your publication can be like the Guardian, with sentences like this: “Since Jamaica achieved independence 48 years ago, there have been five state of emergencies.”

And if you’ve been really lucky with your recruitment, this sentence could be followed by something like this: “Those in 1988, 2004 and 2007 were related to hurricanes, while the exceptional powers imposed in 1966 and 1976 were political in nature, related to violence in the run-up to an election.”

Yes, you got that. One election. It lasted ten years.


Doris Day wants you to be a teacher’s pet.

Up and down the land people are about to return from holiday tanned and refreshed, full of exotic local pastries, ready to tackle the demands of autumn. It’s very serious. Careers depend on it. Public services depend on it.

To be blunt: councils are facing a deeper challenge today than they were this time last year. (And that’s just the recession! No, but seriously, folks…) Back then all they had to do was action their value-added across-the-piece community engagement in a timely manner, leveraging proactive predictors of beaconicity and subsidiary quantum improvement as they went. Now they still have to do all that – but they have to do it without the jargon.

In March the Local Government Association (LGA) issued a list of banned words and phrases. This was their attempt to clarify the guff that comes out of your local authority (or other public body; in my experience this is an across-the-piece scenario). And it is largely guff. Me and my similarly-employed chums get hours of harmless amusement from imitating this kind of language in our off-hours! How we larf.

So this is a forward move. But what is jargon? Now that it’s banned, how can you tell you’re using it?

Time to go back to school. Text Pixels school.

The BBC website lists the LGA’s banned over-the-top jargon. Predictors of beaconicity, however dynamic and picturesque, has to go; so have performance network, preventive services and rebaselining. (This word just makes me think of poor old Richard Pryor.) But the LGA’s list also contains plenty of words that are just – well, words.

The LGA has included words like robust, enhance, dialogue. These words all have very clear meanings. Words like citizen, or capacity. So what are they doing on the list? Well, the reason they’re there along with the predatory beaconicitrons, is that the councils who use them them are forcing the words to suck in their tummies, look to one side and NOT MOVE. Again, and again, and again. The actual meanings are lost through this repetition. In fact, the real meanings were more or less ignored even at the beginning. If you try to read a document – a letter, website, citizen charter, residents’ compact, circular, whatever – with the real, living meaning of these words in mind, it doesn’t make much sense.

And that’s just the public-facing stuff! I have seen the internal documents councils (and other bodies) produce by the truckload when they think no one’s looking. I can tell you, it’s not pretty. Strategies so bloated that they can hardly walk; mission statements so garbled they can’t talk; reports so dense that nobody knows what’s lurking in there. The admin assistants who have to spiral-bind them are miserable. Even their own mothers authors don’t love them. Everybody’s scared of them.

The comms departments in these places, where the trained writers are, can just about stem the tide of jargon that comes through their hands, but that is only a drop in the bucket. The LGA list is aimed directly at the other departments too. So I have prepared a few back-to-school tips for anyone who wants to go to the top of the class with the really good communicators, and not stay back with the unrefibrillated jargonimators.

How to fix your jargon

1. If only your colleagues can understand you, you’re probably talking jargon. You’re probably thinking jargon. Try explaining what you do to your mother. Then remember what you said when you write.

2. The reader only wants to know one thing: “What’s in it for me?” If you write to your audience, not about them, you will be much more likely to get your message across.

3. Imagine you were a person who lived in a local borough, and needed to get information about local services. Oh, wait: you are a person who lives in a local borough! Well, whatever next. Go on then: write to yourself. Your real self. What’s in it for you?

4. Even if you’re just writing the council meeting minutes, it’s likely that they get put up on the website. Right? So ask yourself: do we really want people to read this or not? (If the answer is “not,” you’ll have to wait for my post on hypocrisy and doublespeak.) If the answer is yes, then write it so they can read it.

5. Have you ever heard this word or phrase used this way outside a work context? I mean, and it wasn’t a joke? It wasn’t your goofy cousin talking about blue-sky thinking at a family picnic? Pushing the envelope at the reading of Great-Aunt Gladys’ will? Synergies when – oh, wait, there is no joke possible with that horrible word. If you haven’t seen it, scrap it.

6. If you are writing in jargon because that’s the only way you can understand what you’re saying, then you don’t understand it. Go ask someone what you’re trying to say.

7. Delete “of the” whenever possible. Your writing will be shorter and more direct. I bet your words will even be shorter.

8. Use direct verbs! If there is a person at the beginning of your action word, it’s a nice, direct verb. That’s good. The person (or council) is doing the thing. If  your action contains the word “is,” it is a bad, indirect verb. The action is being actioned, usually by no one or nothing. (Uh oh.) And a thing that is being done by nobody or nothing is far more likely to have four syllables and be gobbledigook. (Yes. That has four syllables. But it’s okay.)

9. This will take courage. Be brave. Be clear. Be simple. Say what you mean. And keep the PC to a bare minimum, too. I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about people respectfully. I mean, don’t use euphemisms. It’s another kind of jargon and people don’t like it.

(Bonus extra: get a copywriter in to help you out. Or an editor. Or a very clever pixie.)


“See, it says here…”

Since his election, the president has been roundly criticized by bloggers for using “I” instead of “me” in phrases like “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” or “the main disagreement with John and I” or “graciously invited Michelle and I.”

If I’d known this I’d surely have been among those bloggers. But because I’m in London, and a “holiday American” (that is, I rarely go even there on holiday), to be honest I didn’t know the new Leader of the Free World did that thing.

Speaking of getting it right in public speaking, GW Bush did make me laugh every time he said “nucular.” But that just underlines why Obama should try and get it right. The New York Times article itself troubled me while I was reading it, as it almost seemed to be saying it was okay to talk like this, because Shakespeare himself used to do it. Apparently there is an instance of it in The Merchant of Venice. I had my riposte half written.

This is because, guys, it can never be okay. The reason why this is the case is that we are not living in the time of Shakespeare. (Surprise!) Even though it was only in (what the NYT calls) the 1800s that “people started kvetching” about this usage, which I suppose makes it still relatively recent, the point is that we are living after the 1800s, and usage has changed since then… but you see… no one needed me to say all that.

In 1869 the usage was even featured in a book called Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech.

As to “scofflaws” like the new president, it is easily explained. There is a linguistic term for their condition, which is based on childhood trauma:

…they were scolded as children for saying things like “Me want candy” instead of “I want candy,” so they began to think “I” was somehow more socially acceptable. Or maybe it’s because they were admonished against “it’s me.” Anybody who’s had “it is I” drummed into his head is likely to avoid “me” on principle, even when it’s right. The term for this linguistic phenomenon is “hypercorrection.”

Because even the Victorians wanted you to think about what you were saying – and why – before you followed some cockamamy rule.

The other day there was an article in the Guardian, I forget what it as now, with a standfirst that ended: “but for who?”

I’ll get the campaign van ready.