Friday, December 2, 2016

The rise and fall of high and low

Business writers like to use the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ indiscriminately. Numbers can be high or low, but physical things such as ships can’t (except in the Panama Canal locks). Similarly, they use the verbs ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ – the process of becoming high or low – too much. If you use such words for things other than numbers, you give the impression that you aren’t thinking about the real world.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

How harassed are you?

Another survey hits the press, this time from the Trades Union Congress and Everyday Sexism, telling us how badly women are treated at work. 

Scepticism is the obvious response, because the TUC is in the business of protecting workers and is never going to put its name to a survey saying they don't need it. Everyday Sexism isn't in the business of denying there's a problem either, and has form when it comes to presenting anecdote as data. But we could make similar arguments about most surveys that appear in the press. 

We all know sexism used to be a big problem in the workplace, and most of us suspect that it hasn't been eradicated. After reading this survey, our understanding hasn't moved on an inch. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Articles: "the", "a" or neither?

Articles are funny things. They're hugely important in languages where they are used, yet other languages get by quite happily without them. Unfortunately, anyone writing for an international audience will usually have to learn English, and that means using articles. For Indians, Japanese and many others, it's a hard skill to master.

Articles determine the role of a noun in a sentence, giving it history and context. There are two kinds: the definite ("the") and the indefinite ("a" – or "an" if the noun starts with a vowel sound*). 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The pay gap that might not be there

Need to prove an argument? Chuck in some statistics. Any old ones will do.

Sometimes it's hard to tell if a journalist is ignorant of statistics or is being deliberately misleading. Like most of us, they seldom question statistics that seem to prove what they already think they know. 

The Guardian is no better or worse than most, and it's been doing a lot of it lately. Some of its statistics are misleading, but mostly they simply don't say what they seem to say. Whether the writer knows this and is trying to pull a fast one or just doesn't understand what the numbers mean is hard to say. 

Take this example, in a recent article about how the press should report suicide in the wake of Robin Williams' death:

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Say it clearly or not at all

Most writers, and nearly all editors, secretly know that they care too much. Once upon a time, poor language was restricted to personal correspondence, because nobody got published unless they had a good grasp of English already, and even the worst of them (F Scott Fitzgerald springs to mind) usually had good editors who would make sure their writing was in decent shape before any reader saw it.

That all changed with the internet. Suddenly we are overwhelmed by the thoughts of the illiterati as they spew across the web like stinking turds from a broken sewer, through blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the comment sections of news websites. No sooner has an idea dawned with feeble glow of a five-Watt bulb than it's there on the internet for the world to see, forever. Speak You're Branes: there's no one to stop you.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Why you shouldn't put numbers in text


Read any piece of business writing, and you're bound to encounter this sort of gibberish:
In the total throughput table, XYZ is ranked at the market leader, with a throughput of 66.3 million units, up from 60.9 million units in 2006, and a global share of 13.3%. ABC is in second position, with 60.3 million units (12.1%) followed by PQR with 54.7 million units (11%), DEF with 43 million units (8.7%) and JKL, which moved 27.3 million units and has a market share of 5.5%.
Business reports typically have dozens of tables. That’s where the numbers should go. We can’t completely avoid putting numbers in the text, but it should be avoided wherever possible. 

Here’s why.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Farage and the Hitler Youth

My only picture of Farage from school
It has been reported recently that Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, sang "Hitler Youth songs" while in the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) at his school, Dulwich College, in 1981.

I know Farage didn't sing any Hitler Youth songs because we didn't know any. I say "we", because I was there; Channel 4 News wasn't and nor, for that matter, was Chloe Deakin (the teacher whose letter about Farage was the basis of the stories).

The letter itself was kept by Bob Jope, a teacher I knew well and admired very much, and who was the epitome of what right-wing commentators would describe as a "trendy leftie". His motives in keeping and later publicising the letter will be obvious, but he didn't hear the cadets singing in Sussex because he wouldn't have been seen dead in the CCF. He was still a good teacher though, and one who inspired creative thinking - a much-needed counter-balance to the school's more usual obsessions with Latin and rugby.