Thursday, September 29, 2011

Does my business need Facebook?

Barely a day after I wrote a post about how surveys can mislead with their headline statistics, I've run into an article telling me that "Facebook matters to every business", including B2B. Since I'm working on our media presence, I've got to take notice. The apparent clincher is that "one out of every eight minutes online is spent on Facebook."

Wow. The authority of that statement is so compelling, so absolute that we'd be foolish to question it. If we did, we'd only be a step away from doubting that half the world has never made a phone call, we need to drink eight glasses of water a day or Eskimos have 50 words for snow. In these strage days when even Manchester City can win trophies, we need some certainties to cling to.

But I'm not going to cling to that one. I've already told my MD that we need to be on Twitter but not Facebook. I hear my colleagues whisper as I pass, "he's got two Twitter accounts", so my reputation as a digital savant will be bruised if I start backsliding. Fortunately, I don't have to. 
My company is missing out on this action

I know my customers are on Facebook because I'm friends with some of them. But even more of them are on LinkedIn and I've no doubt that many are regular visitors to as well. That's not the point.

As I wrote yesterday, headline statistics tell us very little on their own. One-in-eight is accurate enough (the precise number, which originated in ComScore's 2010 Digital Year In Review, is 12.3%), but it doesn't tell me much about my customers.

The first point is that ComScore's survey only covered the USA. A lot of research into the internet is done by US companies and is then picked up by journalists, commentators and bloggers who don't even bother to mention that it's a domestic study because, for them, America is the world. But in my industry, the USA is no more important than China, India, the UK, Germany, Japan, Russia, the UAE and Norway, and in some cases it's a lot less important.

As you'd expect, there are also some interesting variations in that 12.3%. Women spend 16.8% of their time on social networking sites, and, as the survey says, "Women not only spend more of their time on these sites than men, but they are also accelerating their usage at a faster rate." What's more, the share of 35-54 year-olds using Facebook is slipping. I'm not proud of this, but most of the decision-makers in my industry are middle-aged men, who are just the people who are engaging least with Facebook (and that's according to the research being cited as proof that I need to put our business there).

Then there's the question of what these people are doing on Facebook (the survey doesn't say, but a lot of it seems to revolve around pictures of kittens). The next question is how engaged they are with the site. As I write this, my browser has ten tabs open. One of them is Facebook, so you might say I'm spending 10% of my online time on Facebook, which is consistent with what the study says. But it's been open for eight hours now and I've only spent about four minutes actively looking at it.

So, somebody tells me that I need to be on Facebook because my customers are there. And yet, when I look at the research on which the advice is based, it tells me I need to be on Facebook because my customer's wife might be there looking at kittens. It's hardly compelling.

Moral: Same as yesterday: don't draw conclusions from the headline statistics.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Facts can also lie

Surveys are one of the staples of journalism. Those numbers with their reassuringly scientific percentage signs look so convincing, don't they? We just know we can rely on their cold, dispassionate objectivity. Or can we?

The short answer is yes, usually we can. It's very seldom that a survey arrives on a newsdesk with numbers that are actually false. But those numbers don't necessarily say what we think they say, and any journalist with a modicum of training and a minimum of scruple can make those numbers say whatever she, or her editor, wants them to say. As Hannen Swaffer reportedly put it, "Freedom of the press in Britain is freedom to print such of the proprietor's prejudices as the advertisers don't object to".

So, when a German research organisation tested the relative parking skills of men and women, it found that women take on average 20 seconds longer to park an unfamiliar car. The Daily Mail gleefully reported that the old 'prejudice' was actually true: women really are worse than men at parking. Someone else spun exactly the same bit of data to say that women are more careful than men at parking (a conclusion that was consistent with other findings in the same survey, which were unsurprisingly given less prominence by the Mail). Same numbers, different conclusions.

Scepticism is essential. That's easy when the survey says something you don't believe, but it's more important to be sceptical about studies – or anything in fact – that seem to confirm one's own beliefs.

Equal pay is a good example, because it's been widely studied, the statistical results are consistent and almost everyone has experience of either working with women or of being one. One of the most common responses to such studies is that the workplace remains far too sexist and that the problem will only be solved once men and women receive equal pay.

I will not argue that the workplace is or isn't sexist, because I'm not qualified to do that and because I'm trying to make a point about understanding surveys, not about equality in society.

The problem with these surveys is that they reduce a huge and complex thing – the working conditions of every employed person in the country – to a few headline numbers. Writers and analysts need to look beyond those numbers to work out what they actually say, rather than what they appear to say. That means asking hard questions and being prepared to find answers that you don't like.

Question 1: Are we comparing like with like?
Female directors definitely get paid less than men. But I've seen directors' posts advertised for under £40,000, while other directors are paid ten times that figure. When looking at a survey, ask how many directors of comparable status in comparable industries are included. Are there enough of them to make a sensible comparison?

To use a personal example, my job title is "Editorial Director". Today, I saw a managing director's post (two echelons above mine) advertised at half my salary. If they appoint a woman, it will emphasise the disparity between senior women's pay and men's. If they appoint a man, it will add to the disparity in numbers at senior level. It's easy to see that gender can't be an issue because the job hasn't even been filled, but whoever gets the job will skew the gender statistics one way or the other.

Feminists rightly argue that women should be paid the same as men for the same work. However, away from the production line nearly all jobs are different, making comparisons impossible, even within the same organisation. I was once editor of a magazine when I had just two journalists on staff. My successor had six. Same company, same job, same pay, very different work. Unfortunately, sexist managers sometimes use that argument to wriggle out of their legal responsibilities. 

Question 2: What is the real reason for the disparity?
Playing Devil's Advocate, I once posted a comment on a newspaper story about pay disparity. It went like this:
The Equal Pay Act gave women the right to have the same deal as men, but maybe they looked at the rat-race with its long hours, its devotion to the job above all else and its destruction of the human spirit and said "no thanks". Meanwhile us men slave away with our eyes glued to a computer screen and our noses glued to the boss's backside for 20 years till our wives see what empty, soulless shadows we have become and walk away; taking kids, house, money and all, leaving the man with his salary and his drink problem. You need a big salary to accept that deal. Women are smarter than men. Consciously or unconsciously, they say "no".
My assessment was deliberately exaggerated and might be completely wrong, but my point was that we should consider all possible explanations before assuming that the "obvious" one is correct. It is also just as likely that women really are being held back by powerful men who don't give them the same opportunities as similarly placed men, or that sexist culture subconsciously persuades women to settle for less. 

I'm not arguing for any of these interpretations, and possibly all three factors come into play depending on individual circumstances, along with a few others I haven't thought of. My point is that the headline numbers don't prove any of these theses, because they show effect, not cause.

Question 3: Who says so?
If a survey is commissioned by, say, Fathers For Justice, we can be pretty sure that they won't release it unless it supports their 'women have it all and men are the victims' manifesto. No pressure group will publicise findings that show their job is done or they're wasting their time and should pack up and go home. With that in mind, you could also ask them a question posed in Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics : "How many juries did you poll before you found this one?"

Question 4: What questions did they ask to get those answers?
Pollsters are adept at asking questions that get the answers their paymasters want, and respondents have a bad habit of giving answers that they want the pollsters to believe. For instance, get a team of women to ask married men in face-to-face interviews whether they use the internet for pornography, and I don't think you'll get very reliable results. Similarly, it would be easy to get a big majority of people to say 'yes' to the question, "Do you oppose the EU meddling in Britain's affairs?", but that's because everyone opposes "meddling" of any sort. It's a very pejorative word. The resulting headline would be something like "Brits say 'hands off!' to Brussels", even though the respondents were only expressing an opinion on a subjective and hypothetical situation.

Once again, I'll stress that I have only chosen gender equality because it's a widely studied phenomenon of which we all have experience and where the headline numbers are consistent and therefore reliable, making it the simplest example I could think of. It should not be taken to mean that I don't believe in equality (I do) or that I think equality has been achieved. The hardest thing to do is to question evidence that seems to support one's own beliefs, but it is vital that we do so (whether or not we are journalists). From an activist's standpoint, it is crucial that the real nature of the problem be understood, because you can't fight the enemy if you don't know where he is. To use a medical analogy, a pain in the leg might stem from a problem in the lower back, so targeting the leg would be pointless and even dangerous.

Moral: Always look deeper and draw your own conclusions, not the conclusions someone else wants you to draw.

Monday, September 26, 2011

That word

I'm a big fan of the word 'that', but mostly as a replacement for the over-used 'which'. To inexperienced writers, 'which' seems somehow more educated than 'that', so they write such phrases as:
"There will be a newsletter which summarises all our activity on a monthly bases." (Guardian Professional Network, 26 September 2011)
Ignore the obvious howler ("bases"). Clearly the writer wants the phrase "which summarises all our activity" to define the newsletter, thus distinguishing it from all other newsletters. If so, she should have used 'that', because 'that' defines and 'which' describes.

Put another way, a clause introduced by 'which' simply provides more information and could be made into a separate sentence. A clause introduced by 'that' provides essential, defining information. So, the film about Franz von Werra, the only German prisoner of war to escape from the British in World War II, was called 'The One That Got Away'. 

In these cases, 'which' should always be preceded by a comma. If it isn't, you run the risk of creating an ambiguity. Here's Jonathan Jones writing about museums:
"In fact, the new Renaissance galleries at the V&A do include activity areas which visitors of all ages seem to enjoy." (Guardian, 26 September 2011)
Does he mean 'that' or 'which'? If, as I suspect, he means the latter, then he should have used a comma. That means the sentence could have been rewritten as:
"In fact, the new Renaissance galleries at the V&A do include activity areas. Visitors of all ages seem to enjoy them."
If he meant 'that', then he is distinguishing these activity areas from other activity areas – presumably ones that visitors don't enjoy.

But 'that' has other, less noble uses. It's often a sign of wordiness (and the grammar checker in Microsoft Word is good at spotting this). Sentences containing "it is … that" are almost always wordy and over-written, as in this example from a recent report I read:
"It is quite likely that we will see further casualties"
That could have been written much better as:
"We are quite likely to see further casualties"
We have replaced 'it is' with 'we are' and 'that we will' with 'to', saving two words (20%). I'd get rid of 'quite' as well (and I nearly always do), but let's not cloud the issue. If I were boiling it down to its essentials, I would have simply written "further casualties are likely", reducing a ten-word sentence to four words, without any loss of meaning.

Moral: 'that' defines, 'which' describes

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

BUPA: when advertising slogans go wrong

There are worse ways of starting the day than by using the London Underground, though it took me a while to think of one – till I remembered poor old Ivan Denisovich. One never gets used to the monotonously percussive hiss of personal stereos and the dense over-crowding of the Northern Line, but at least the summer body-odour season is over and the winter halitosis season is a few weeks away.

The experience was made that little bit worse this morning by having to spend four minutes staring at a BUPA advert declaring its new slogan "Helping you find healthy". 

There are many things wrong with this. Obviously it's wrong in the most literal sense, and that's bound to annoy any lover of language. But advertisers need to catch our attention and keep their message in our heads long after the message itself is no longer visible, so they're entitled to break a few rules here and there. 

But it's ugly. The advertising agency, Starcom MediaVest, might argue that it caught my attention and didn't let go, so it's a successful slogan, ugly or not. True, but if someone vomits on my shoes they'll get my attention in a way that I won't forget. It's not necessarily a good thing.*

I think it fails in other important areas. Firstly, it's not very original. Apple, with it's "Think different" and MacDonald's with its "I'm loving it" have cornered the market in quirky grammar failures (see Grammar Girl's discussion of the latter here). By taking several years to follow their lead, BUPA looks like an old, slow-moving beast coming late to the carcase after the quicker creatures have devoured the fresh meat.

Secondly, "Helping you find healthy" is appallingly mealy-mouthed. BUPA says on its website, "Healthy means different things to different people," but does it? There might be degrees of 'healthiness', but it still only means one thing to most people: the best state of health achievable in one's personal circumstances. But that's not the main issue. 

Will BUPA make you healthier or, heaven forbid, cure you if you're ill? No. It will "help" "you" to "find", not health, but "healthy" – a concept that has no meaning because BUPA has just made it up. That slogan says nothing, promises nothing and even manages to cloak its non-message by using a word that makes no sense in the context. So:
  1. BUPA won't do anything, it will only "help"
  2. So, who will do it? "You" will, on your own
  3. What you're looking for isn't even health, but the meaningless "healthy"
  4. And you won't necessarily achieve anything. You'll just find it. 
In only four words, it has found four ways of being vague, non-committal and equivocal. That's quite an impressive display of insincerity.

Lastly, there's something about medicine that needs to be precise. We instinctively mistrust scientific types if they play fast and loose with the definitions, as if there's no difference between magnesium and manganese, or between the epiglottis and the epidermis. I might accept MacDonald's and Apple trying to be hip and fun, but that's not the attitude I want from a 'healthcare provider'. If BUPA can't tell the difference between a noun and an adjective, it creates the subconscious impression of an organisation that doesn't know its arse from its elbow.

Moral: When BUPA sends you a bill, don't send them a cheque. Send them a note promising to "help them find wealthy"

*This advert achieved something, because it reminded me that the 'free' BUPA healthcare that comes with my job costs me a huge amount in extra tax. I've been meaning to cancel it for a while. I'll do it when I get home.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Break the rules, make the rules

People who read this blog, as well as those unfortunate enough to know me, will be aware that I don't have a PhD in English. The latter will know and the former might have noticed that I'm just as interested in medieval history and 1970s German rock bands, although the jury is out over which subject bores them more. That's a long-winded way of saying that there are people far more qualified than me to write about what is strictly correct in language. I'm more interested in clarity, and that includes breaking the rules and even making new rules.

If you're a stickler for the rules, then the correct way to write an abbreviation is with dots between the capitals. At every publication where I've worked, I have vigorously campaigned to get rid of these. As far as I'm concerned, dots have two functions: as full stops (periods) or decimal points. I make two exceptions: e.g. and i.e.

The final dot can cause confusion if it comes at the end of a clause but not at the end of a sentence, and the problem is worse if the dot comes at the end of a line or a page. If you insist on keeping the dots, then you're on the slippery slope towards insisting that all acronyms should be in capitals, and from there it's only a short step to insisting that radar be spelt RaDAR. It's already obvious that UK, USA and SPLAJ* are abbreviations. What purpose do the dots serve? Lose them.

Do they says that?
Boy, do some people get upset about 'they' as a non-gendered singular pronoun. It's been used like that since the 14th Century. More importantly, it gets writers out of having to write horribly awkward sentences full of 'he or she'. If you really want to get into it, Motivated Grammar has written a long blog post about it so I don't have to. Drink it up.

Elisions are wrong in written English
No they aren't. The more formal your writing, the less you should use them. That's all.

Brackets (parentheses) are ugly
Brackets are viewed with distaste in some quarters, while en- or en-dashes provoke horror. It's true that the dashes are over-used and brackets are under-used, but both are a useful way of making sure sentences with conditional clauses don't get overloaded with commas. 

If you find your prose needs brackets, then it's possible that your sentence is over-long and too complex. See if you can break it up. If you can't, then the en-dash and the bracket are your friends.

Americanisms are vulgar
Like most Britons my age (I turned 47 last week), I was brought up surrounded by prejudices against the Americans and the Germans. Both are beautiful countries with lovely people, and have contributed more than most to the world's cultural and intellectual progress. America has driven the development of the English language over the past 80-odd years and we would all be a lot poorer without its contribution. 

A recent BBC article displayed how this prejudice blinds us. In a list of hated "Americanisms" were plenty of appalling expressions that have nothing to do with the USA. People see words and phrases they don't like and instinctively blame them on America, which says more about their own narrow-mindedness.

Every country and region has its own variety of English, and some idioms belong in one place but not another. You can't blame America if an Englishman is foolish enough to say a cricketer "stepped up to the plate" (and yes, I have seen it). Sloppiness of thought and speech deserves to be derided, wherever it comes from. If an expression is fresh, vibrant and appropriate then you should use it, regardless of where it came from.

To boldly split infinitives no one has split before
Back when some of Britain's more pompous imperialists were trying to equate the British Empire with the Roman, Latin was held in high regard. Since Latin infinitives were single words, they couldn't be split, so it was felt that English infinitives shouldn't be split either.

That's a load of twaddle. The Latin verb ire (to go) is never split, but neither is eo (I go). Generally, it's bad style to put anything between the verb and its subject, and the same goes for the infinitive. It's just ugly, not wrong. If it makes your sentence better, go ahead. "To go boldly" doesn't work as well as "to boldly go". Gene Roddenberry's honour is intact.

Anyone who cares about clear writing either knows Orwell's article Politics and the English Language off by heart, or can't wait to click this link and wonder why it took them so long to read it.

Moral: Break any of these rules sooner than say something barbarous (George Orwell).

*Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, though Libya probably won't be called that for much longer.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Surprising etymologies

I remember as a child being surprised to realise that fantastic was related to fantasy, and later that brilliant meant shining. ("Le soleil brille," we would all chant when our French teacher asked what the sun did.) Sometimes, knowing the root of a word brings its meaning into focus. 

Probably my favourite is conspire. The Latin spirare means 'to breathe' (as in respiration, perspiration, etc), so it literally means 'breathe together', which for me creates an evocative image of what conspirators do.

This week I had a fascinating discussion with the incomparable Heather Corinna about the awkward relationship between infidelity and infidels. Both come from the Latin fides (faith), which implies a belief based on no evidence. By talking about 'infidelity', we seem to be accepting a religious sanction on our personal relationships, even among those who reject religion. If one partner is covertly sleeping around, that person isn't showing a lack of 'faith'; it's their cuckolded partner who is showing too much faith. Infidelity in relationships has little to do with a lack of faith; it's all about the nastier business of breaking promises.

The only thing surprising about dog is that it appears to have no etymology. It's unrelated to the German hund or the French chien, and no other language anywhere has a comparable word. Various etymologies have been suggested, but none are persuasive.

It's said that English borrows from every language. I'm not sure that's strictly true, but this common little word comes from Mongolian and takes us back into the empire of Genghis Khan (you know it's pronounced Jenghis, don't you?). It's unrelated to 'hoard', which is Anglo-Saxon and refers to treasure. 

The Mongols, being nomads, lived in tents, and a city of tents was an ordos. The h was added by the Poles, who came into uncomfortably close contact with the Mongols during the campaign of 1241. When the Mongol Empire broke up, the Russian branch set up its capital at Sarai, near the Volga, and its wealth was such that the tents were covered with gold-coloured cloth, which is how the Russian Mongols became known as The Khanate [i.e. kingdom] of the Golden Horde. The word horde came to refer to the people rather than their city. Since they fulfilled all the criteria of a horde as we know the word today, the meaning morphed.

Since the Mongols regarded themselves as a 'World Empire', it's not surprising that they had a presence in India as well (where their descendants became the Mughals). The language spoken in their camps took the word for 'camp': Urdu.

While we're in India, let's not forget that the word for a one-storey house comes from there. It is related to the name Bengal and Bangladesh. Sometimes, the name of a place is simply 'home' in the local language.

Some serious contraction has gone on here. How can four little letters mean keeper of bread?

Here's how: in the early Middle Ages, people gave service and loyalty to a lord in return for protection, and they became vassals in the process. Those who put their hands together in prayer are mimicking the medieval act of submission, whereby a vassal would offer his hands to a lord, and the lord would put his hands over the vassal's hands to seal the deal in a symbol of protection.

Protection included managing the food supply. The symbol of sustenance, then as now, was bread (as in "Give us this day our daily bread", which in 1000AD was "yaf us todaȝ urne daȝwamlican hlaf"), so the boss was the hlaf-weard (loaf-ward[en]). That got shortened to lafford and eventually lord.

This brings us neatly to…

This is etymology from a slightly different angle. Essentially, warden and guardian are the same word. English being a Germanic language, we have the w sound. Romance languages, notably French, lacked this sound and so substituted the letter g for w, so the German name Wilhelm became Guilhomme, while you can see how the Gaulish people of Britain became Welsh to their conquerors (actually it's more complicated than this, but it will do for now).

The people of Roman Gaul didn't adopt many words from their Germanic conquerors, the Franks, but some of the language of aggression slipped through: the French for war, guerre, comes from the same root as the German wehr, rather than the Latin bellum. Warden came into the English language from German and Guardian from French. So wardrobe (a piece of furniture for warding your robes) is garde-robe in French.

This consonant-shift brings us back to the words for dog. When the Indo-European languages split into East and West in about 2500BC, the initial k sound hardened to a c in West languages (Latin, Gallic and their descendants) and softened to an h in East languages (all the others, including German and English). So hund and canis, the German and Latin words for dog, have the same root. The same goes for hundred and century.

Moral: I have to blog about this. If I talk about in the pub, my friends' eyes glaze over.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Don't write like Dali

Keeping sentences simple is one of the fundamental rules of writing. Artists can break these rules, but few of us are artists and those of us who write for a business readership should never aspire to art (at least, not on company time). 

In my more wretched moments of self-delusion, I might still dream that I can write a novel. Great novelists break all the rules: Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and No Country For Old Men, can construct sentences of elegance and beauty that run to over 200 words; but he wouldn't write like that if he were explaining why the world is facing the danger of another recession.

Please don't write like this
Look at Picasso's painting Guernica: it creates an unforgettable image in the mind but it doesn't convey any facts about the bombing of a town. So, if you are asked to explain your methodology for forecasting GDP growth in the Eurozone, your reply should not mirror Picasso's explanation of Guernica: 
"If you give a meaning to certain things in my [economic anlaysis] it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously."
Thanks Pablo. Do I sell, buy or hold?
Take the Central Line and change at Bank
Dali's The Persistence of Memory is one of most memorable images in the history of art and speaks to us at an emotional level about the fluidity of our perception of time, which is why I don't really have five minutes to iron that shirt if I want to arrive at my meeting in good time. If I want to be punctual, the picture I'd carry in my pocket would look more like this

Similarly, Beethoven's 7th Symphony, which is playing as I write this, speaks to me on many levels, but it can't tell my how to wire the timer on my boiler, which is why I'm writing this at home while waiting for an engineer to call. (It doesn't help that the wiring diagram that came with the unit looks it was drawn by Rolph Scarlett.)

Clarity is rooted in simplicity, but that doesn't have to mean dullness. If the fundamental structure of a sentence is kept simple, then a lot of extra information and even some ornamentation can be added. Your basic sentence is formed by subject-verb-object: e.g. dog bites man. Your first task is to get those three in the right order and keep them that way.

Next up, try to keep the subject and the verb as close together as possible. Everything you put between a subject and its verb leaves the reader in mid-air, waiting for a resolution to the half-formed idea in his head. If the wait is too long, your grip will slip and the reader will fall. Your sentence has failed.

Then you can add subordinate clauses (preferably not at the start of the sentence), dates and times (usually near the end), and explanations (separated by brackets, em- or en-dashes, or bracketed commas). Then you can use more expressive verbs and nouns, and finally you can add a few well-chosen adjectives or adverbs. Just don't lose track of the simple sentence structure underlying it all, don't disrupt the order of that sentence and don't put anything between the subject and the verb.

And break any of these rules if you think it makes for a better sentence.*

Moral: If you keep it simple, you won't lose clarity
*I have broken most of these rules in this post

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ten tips for better business writing

During my divorce, my wife's solicitor approached me in the court's waiting room and asked me about my earnings from music journalism. I pointed out that it was several years ago, and that by talking about it for 15 minutes she had probably earned more from it than I had. I might dream about creative writing, but business writing has bought the house, put my daughters through school and put a BMW in my driveway.

But that's another story and brings me to my first point about effective writing:

1) Get to the point
You're probably reading this and looking for tips about writing and find yourself reading about my divorce. What do you care? I might want to set myself up as a heroic figure who has spent five years to bringing up two teenage girls, but how does my one-sided, self-aggrandising boasting help you? Not in the slightest. In fact, it's already putting you off, I can tell.

Think about your readers. They neither know nor care about the struggles you went through to research and write the report they are reading. They are busy people. They need to know the important stuff and need to know it now. Don't waste their time. Don't write like an academic, filling the first two pages with caveats and discussions about your research processes. Get to the point and get there quickly.

2) Long words don't make you clever
Always remember, your readers are not interested in how many big words you know. If you want to produce art, write a novel. The simplest prose is the best.

3) Time goes at the end
I've just been proofreading a piece where the writer constantly puts the time part too close to the front of the sentence. For instance, he says:
The company in 2010 returned to profit
Why tell your readers when something happened before you say what happened? I want to ask the author, "When did you join Taini Kisen Kaisha?" He'll say, "I joined TKK in 1988." I'll then ask, "Why didn't you say, 'I in 1988 joined TKK.'" He'll give me a blank look and say something like, "…because that's a stupid way of putting it." "THEN WHY DO YOU WRITE LIKE THAT?"

4) Can't see the wood for the trees?
You can say less in 40 words than you can say in 20. I have plenty of experience in editing long, overwrought sentences and cutting them down to the bare essentials. And what do I find? Those sentences don't actually say anything. In essence, the writer is using long and wordy sentences to hide the fact that he hasn't thought out what he wants to say.

5) Due to the fact that…
…can always be replaced by "because". "Due to" is a popular way of disguising the relationship between one thing and another. It creates a vague relationship between two things where the cowardly writers can avoid saying 'x caused y'. Did x cause y? If you're not sure, then you should find out.

By the way, "due to" can only describe the relationship between two things (i.e. nouns). Floods can be due to rain, but such phrases as "there was a slight drop in 2010 due to less grain being harvested" are wordy, vague and wrong. Always replace "due to it being" with "because it is", as in "because less grain was harvested".

6) Beware of the 'brain dump'
Writing is all about communicating. Readers of novels and newspapers just need a good story, and accuracy is more important than completeness. Lawyers and academics don't want to read a story: they need to know everything, which is why academic and legal writing is so convoluted and dull.

Business writers fall between these two camps. Yes, they need to cram a lot more facts into their writing, but they need to focus on what the readers of this specific publication need to know. Filling your writing with unnecessary details and facts just to prove that you know them will not endear you to those readers.

7) Statistics don't belong in writing
If you're a business writer, you'll need some hard facts – including numbers – to back your arguments up. However, as I've said before, readers don't understand numbers and their presence in text obstructs rather than informs. You can't get away with no numbers at all, but two good rules of thumb will help to make your work more readable:
  • Rule 1: Have no more than two sets of numerals in any paragraph.
  • Rule 2: Do not quote numbers to more than three significant figures unless you absolutely cannot avoid it. A report I'm editing today says "volumes were up 17.59% from last week". Ask yourself, what can any reader possibly gain from being told those tenths and hundredths of a percent?
8) Use numbers that mean something
Conversions and forecasts are prime areas where numbers (especially percentages) are used with a precision that stretches reality. For instance, you might read that a German company is expecting to make £14.49 million in profit this year. Do the maths, and you'll find that £14.49 million is exactly €10 million at today's exchange rate and is clearly an estimate. That estimate wasn't accurate to four significant figures, and nor should your conversion be.

Similarly, you might read that trade volumes are 35.242 billion tonnes this year, but are expected to reach 44.053 billion tonnes in the next five years. Do the maths, and the prediction looks suspiciously like 25%, which is about as accurate as any such prediction can be. Quoting an accuracy of five significant figures borders on the dishonest.

9) Don't write in Latin
In the Middle Ages and beyond, Latin was the language of scholarship. John Milton, the 17th Century poet, had to give a one-hour lecture in Latin just to receive his degree. This is the 21st Century, so peppering your work with Latin phrases makes it less readable and gives it an air of pomposity. As per, per annum and sine qua non belong in 1st Century, not the 21st. Even the English courts have tried to eliminate Latin. You should too.

10) Communicate!
It doesn't matter how much you know: if your readers can't understand what you've written or become so bored that they give up, then you've failed. Getting your thoughts onto paper is only half the battle. Those thoughts need to get off the paper and into the minds of your readers. Your reader might be an executive or a professor, but when she reads she reads as a person. Don't try to communicate as expert to businessman. Communicate as person to person.

I could say a lot more on all these topics, but you're busy. I don't like to waste my readers' time, and nor should you.

Moral: There are two reasons for writing business reports: to inform other business folk and to develop your brand.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Six misused words that WON'T make you look foolish

Not long ago, I posted ten words that can make you look foolish. Some of them didn't exist, but many of them were words with a more precise meaning than the writer often realises.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't ever use words figuratively, and sometimes it's quite acceptable to use words wrongly. Often a word has a technical meaning that goes far beyond what any colloquial user could need, or sometimes it's closely tied to a belief system. A good example of the latter is antediluvian, which literally means 'before the flood'. You don't need to believe in the story of Noah to use this word. The colloquial meaning is of something so old-fashioned that it belongs in an era long before the modern age, so you don't need to be a Creationist to use it.

Here are some others that many people use wrongly but don't need to correct.

A subject close to my heart. In fact, the alcohol in alcoholic drinks is ethanol. But you won't find chemists in a pub, bar or restaurant asking for ethanolic drinks, so why should you? One of my maxims is: "Tell it like it is." In this case, carry on telling it like it isn't. 

Because forensic scientists are the cops who do science, the word forensic is often taken to mean 'scientific', which is ridiculous if you stop to think about it. If that were the case, they would be called forensic police. However, lawyers and scientists both study things in minute and irritating detail. The correct meaning is so close to the intended meaning that it doesn't really matter.

In American political circles, the word liberal is often used as an insult: a liberal is effectively a communist who lacks the courage to admit the fact and who loves criminals and wants to help them kill your children. In Britain, it's basically a shorthand for someone who believes in freedom generally and a laissez faire approach to economics (if you're on the right) or society (if you're on the left). Most British politicians, even those outside the Liberal Democrat Party, would happily describe themselves as liberals and would be insulted if someone said they weren't.

Michael Dukakis was memorably pilloried in the 1988 US presidential election for being a closet liberal. I would have liked him to stand up with a dictionary and say something like, "Merriam-Webster defines liberalism as, 'a movement emphasizing intellectual liberty; a theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint and usually based on free competition; a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.' Of course I'm a liberal. Aren't you?"

Essentially, liberal means what you want it to mean. If you're a right-wing, Fox News attack dog, carry on using it as an insult. Your audience will understand it the way you mean it.

The word American covers everyone from Alaska to Patagonia, but most people use it to refer to just one country. While the pedants are undoubtedly correct to say that Guatemalans are also Americans, I'm going to ignore them till someone comes up with a decent adjective to describe things and people from the USA. USians won't do. Some Canadians seem particularly aggrieved by this, but, if the performances I saw by Tom Stade and Tony Law at this year's Edinburgh Fringe are anything to go by, the Canadian sense of humour is in very good shape.

Plethora is an illness caused by too many blood cells. Colloquially, it came to mean an abundance, but the real meaning suggests that it shouldn't be used unless the surfeit is unhealthy. Thankfully, it seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years after even the most hardened cliché lovers got sick of it. It seems that we finally suffered from a plethora of plethoras. You're probably safe to use it again, and you can even ignore the fact that, technically, it's a plural.

Priapic or priapism
Priapism is another medical condition, and one that roughly half of the world's spammers believe every man would pay good money to have. Essentially, it's a prolonged and unnatural erection. This can have disastrous consequences, as this early recipient of a Darwin Award discovered.

So, while priapism isn't a simple synonym for 'erection', we do sometimes need a euphemism for a concept that isn't discussed in polite company. Personally, I found it a useful tool (so to speak) for side-stepping Amazon's obscenity filters when posting a review of a dreadful book on business management, where I described how the authors "yearningly stroked the priapism of the executive's ego". A plainer description would not have got past the bots. Mind you, Merriam Webster's definition of the medical condition is "an abnormal, more or less persistent … erection", so perhaps my use of it to describe the egos of CEOs wasn't colloquial after all.

Moral: It's not always wrong to be incorrect.