Monday, November 14, 2011

Lessons without pupils or teachers

BBC Radio 4's Any Questions last Friday was rich with the sort of blah that infects political debate in most countries. The radio doesn't attract the big hitters who get the gig on the BBC's television equivalent, Question Time, which is why the panellists are more timid than usual. There's a bit of slugging, as with all such panel shows, but the main aim of the politicians is to get away without having said anything. It's significant that the follow-up show on Saturday, where listeners write in with their comments, is called Any Answers, because the last thing you'll get on Thursday is answers. 

Every politician has a number of phrases in his arsenal that are designed to deflect the question rather than answer it. In a discussion on the NHS, one panellist (I think it was the Tory representative Andrew Mitchell) came up with one of the most popular such phrases:
Lessons will be learned
Let's think about that for a moment. Lessons will be learned. Doesn't it just resonate with contrition and desire to make amends? Yes it does, and that's why politicians love it. But what does it actually say? Does it say any of the following?
I failed
My organisation failed
I (or my underlings) will make the following improvements
I am sorry
We will discipline or sack those responsible
I will resign
See? This comforting slab of insincerity doesn't acknowledge fault or promise action. At least that other, slightly more contrite platitude "mistakes were made" acknowledges that something went wrong, but both use the evasive passive voice, whose USP (for politicians) is that it is a sentence without a subject.

So, if ever you hear someone say "lessons will be learned", interrupt them with at least one of the following questions, but certainly the last one:
What lesson will be learned?
Why do lessons need to be learned?
Who will teach the lesson?
Who will learn? C'mon, give me a name
Learning is an active process. If something is to be learned, then someone – one or more specific individuals – needs to do the learning. Don't let them get away with stock platitudes instead of answers.

Moral: When politicians use the passive voice, they're hiding something. Insist on an answer.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Does your prose mean anything?

I’ve chosen an example – not a particularly bad one – of the sort of writing that tumbles onto the page in business reports without the writer or the reader stopping to think whether it means anything. It all sounds, well, businessy, which is why the writer can get away without thinking about what he is writing and why the reader probably doesn’t take much notice either. This came from a report I was editing yesterday:
"Slowing US economic growth is starting to impact trend levels"
The reader will get something from this: a vague idea that slowing US growth is having an unwelcome effect. But that doesn’t really tell anyone anything – at least, not anything worth paying money for. Even if you knew which industry was under discussion, you wouldn’t be any wiser. So, what’s wrong?

First, there’s our old friend “impact” used as a verb. This term means something in dentistry, when a growing tooth (usually a wisdom tooth) pushes into another. Impacted molars are painful. In business, ‘to impact’ means ‘to have some sort of effect, probably unwelcome’. Is that the kind of insight that’s going help your reader with his next million-dollar investment?

And what is being ‘impacted’? ‘Trend levels’. All that is required to reduce this phrase to a collection of random syllables is to consider (which the writer clearly didn’t) what those two words actually mean.

‘Level’, as an adjective, means ‘at a constant elevation’. As a noun, it means a point of elevation. A ‘trend’, on the other hand, is a direction of motion. How can a fixed point have a direction of motion? The simple solution is to remove the word ‘levels’, but then we need to know what trends are being affected. The writer doesn’t say (and take my word for it, he didn’t give a clue anywhere in the surrounding paragraphs).

This all suggests that slowing growth is bad for business, which is hardly an insight. The writer wants to imply that the rate of growth in that business is going to slow down, but that’s a frighteningly specific thing to say if you haven’t got the figures or the arguments to support it. By using the vague phrase “impact on trend levels”, he is hoping to avoid making statements he can’t back up without revealing the nakedness of his analysis.

Moral: If the words sound right, you can often get away without saying anything (unless I'm your editor*).

*Not just me. There are plenty of other good editors out there, but business writers don't often employ them.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Review of Is That a Fish In Your Ear? By David Bellos

Bellos starts with a provocative question: what exactly is translation? The answer is more elusive than you might think, but in trying to answer it he takes us on a fascinating journey that is partly academic and partly anecdotal, with a light enough touch to make a fun read. Of course he is an advocate for the unsung, underpaid translator, but he makes a convincing case that translation is often just as creative as writing, and a translation can be an original creation itself.

But he's not just talking about novels: the problems of translation in international diplomacy are given a thorough airing, and he finishes with a fascinating discussion of how language evolved in the first place, not (as we usually presume) as a way of communicating but as a way of defining primitive groups. In other words, language was a way of restricting communication by excluding outsiders, so it was intended to limit communication rather than broaden it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

More facts that lie

Goebbels advocated "the big lie": if the lie is big enough, brazen enough and told often enough, people will believe it. But why lie when you can mislead with the truth? You can't be accused of the heinous crime of lying; the worst they can pin on you is the vague offence of mendacity, and most people don't even know what that means. 

Newspapers love surveys, and I've written before about those pure little numbers we call statistics with their objective, unspinnable and above all reassuring percentage signs. 

Readers and editors should always check for outright errors in calculation – a piece I was editing yesterday claimed that an increase from 255,000 to 1.45 million was 1,292% – and for flaws in method, but usually the numbers are correct and the facts can't be denied. That doesn't mean they mean what they want you to think they mean. The next question for the sceptical reader is, so what?

A prime example appears in today's Guardian, under the headline 'Eight revolting hygiene facts'. I don't know why this appeared today: there's no story attached and no 'according to a survey released by…' tag. Just a slack day on the news desk, I guess. They must be missing Colonel Gadaffi. 

The first revolting fact is that old chestnut, "The average chopping board contains 200% more bacteria than the average toilet seat."

Horrible, isn't it? No, not really. I'm sure the chopping boards and toilet seats in my house are fairly normal, and I'm not in the mood to go knocking on my neighbours' doors to get my own representative sample. So let's use common sense. What comes into contact with your toilet seat? Your bottom. The outside of your bottom, which is little more than an extenstion of the back of your thighs. If you're showering every day and wearing clean clothes, just how dirty are the backs of your thighs going to get? Chances are, you've even kissed someone's bare thigh without worrying about poisoning yourself. 

Your chopping board, on the other hand, comes into contact with all kinds of food and gets scoured by knives, creating cosy little niches where germs can flourish. Of course your chopping board has more bacteria than your toilet seat. I'm surprised it's only 200% more. 

This bit of scaremongering works by invoking the word 'toilet' and allowing our own associations with that piece of sanitary ware to fill in the gaps with our own assumptions. Nobody lied to you. They just made it easy to lie to yourself and then left you to it.

Let's look at Revolting Fact Number 3: "The salad drawer of your fridge may contain more than 750 times the level of bacteria deemed safe." The more you look at it, the more startling that statement is. Since the safe level is presumably the point above which one person could be poisoned, 750 times that level is enough to poison 750 people. Not only is it saying that your salad drawer could poison you, it's actually saying that it could poison nearly a thousand people. One salad drawer, 750 people.

It's a classic piece of churnalism. The link goes to the Huffington Post, which itself is churning something from the Daily Mail. The Mail's piece came from a survey commissioned by Microban, which (believe it or not) manufactures bacterial protection systems. 

The numbers could have been worse because 750 was only the average. The worst fridge Microban tested (of 30) had 12,900 times the safe bacterial limit. So the Guardian could have said, "The salad drawer of your fridge could contain enough bacteria to poison 13,000 people" without misrepresenting the survey (take that rogue fridge out of the sample, and the average is more than halved). 

So, what's wrong with that? Unlike with the toilet seat, we can't rationalise it to find exactly where the flaw lies. We simply need to use common sense. If there were enough bacteria in some fridges to poison a tenth of the population of Basingstoke (and without speculating on how desirable that might be), then the population of the western world would be practically annihilated the next time there was a heatwave, leaving only a few vegans and fruitarians with smug looks on their faces. The fact is, exposure to bacteria helps improve our resistance, which is one reason why the bacterial apocalypse hasn't happened. When it does, I reckon those with obsessively clean kitchens will be the first to go.

You should still clean out your fridge and clean your chopping board more often than you probably do. But without a survey backed by statistics, where's the news story? And anyone who thinks kissing thighs is hazardous can kiss my arse.

Moral: One of the most important questions to ask is 'Really?', closely followed by 'So what?'


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How to cover a shipping story

Rena: a box ship, not a tanker (the clue's in the boxes
on deck), being assisted by Awanuia, a tanker, not a
box ship (the clue's in the pipes on deck)
There’s a maritime disaster, and you have to get a story out quickly. You have my sympathy. It’s not an easy industry to grasp in a couple of hours, and I’m surprised how few mistakes mainstream journalists make. But they still make plenty, so I’m here to help you avoid some of them.

Just because there's no passengers doesn’t mean it’s a tanker
The supertanker boom of the early 1970s was news. First there were stories of ships so big that their crews needed bicycles to get around and in one case even a mini (the car, not the skirt). Later, the stories concentrated on the amount of oil they spilled when they ran aground. Thereafter, people tended to assume that all commercial ships were tankers, even if they were carrying coal.
Tanker: noun, a ship, road vehicle, or aircraft for carrying liquids, especially mineral oils, in bulk (
One captain toured his ship in a mini
The bicycles, by the way, were either dumped over the side or sold in the next port. Imagine cycling on a sloping, moving, metal surface covered in oily water and you’ll understand why.

Just because it’s spilling oil doesn’t mean it’s a tanker
Most powered vehicles carry oil of some sort, either as fuel or lubrication. Ships are no exception. Puncture one in the right place, and oil will come out. The same is true of your car or a Boeing 747. It’s only a tanker if it carries liquid as cargo, in bulk, in a tank.

(Etymological aside: the British army in 1916 wanted to keep their new armoured vehicles a secret, so they told anyone who asked that those large, boxy objects being carried to the front under tarpaulins were water tanks. They’ve been called ‘tanks’ ever since.)

Just because it’s a tanker doesn’t mean it’s a supertanker
Maritime professionals frown on the term ‘supertanker’, but their own term, VLCC, isn't very attractive either. VLCC stands for ‘very large crude carrier’ and denotes a two-million-barrel ship, over 250,000 tonnes. There are also a few ULCCs (work it out) over 350,000 tonnes.

The next size below VLCC is the Suezmax (self-explanatory), over 120,000 tonnes. There are very few tankers between 160,000 and 250,000 tonnes because refineries don’t accept parcels of that size. You could just about call a Suezmax a supertanker, but it isn’t one really.

Speaking of ‘tonnes’…

Ships don’t weigh anything
That statement is obviously untrue. I mean that none of the ‘tonnages’ quoted for ships relate to their weight. The two main measurements for commercial ships are deadweight tonnes (dwt) and gross tons (gt). Note the different spellings of tons/tonnes. Naval ships are measured in displacement (don’t call them ‘military ships’; milites is the Latin for soldiers, whose theatre of operations is definitely not the sea).

Gt is a complicated measurement, but in simple terms it is a measurement of enclosed space, having its origin in the medieval wine trade from France to England, when ships were classified by how many tuns (i.e. barrels) they could carry. It has nothing to do with a ship's weight, so even if your house style is 'tonnes' instead of 'tons', you can't turn gross tons into tonnes.

Dwt measures how much weight the ship can carry (just like a 40-tonne lorry, which doesn’t weigh 40 tonnes; it can carry 40 tonnes of cargo). Although dwt includes fuel and people, on a cargo ship nearly all of it is cargo.

All ships have certificates that specify their gt and dwt, but which is more informative depends on the type of ship. If it’s a cargo ship, best quote the dwt.

…but use a measurement that means something
Despite the above, other measurements will sometimes be more useful to your readers. It might be accurate to tell them the gt of a cruise ship, but saying how many passengers it carries will mean more to them. 

We’ve all seen maritime containers being transported on the roads, so your readers will get a better grasp of the size of a container ship if you say how many boxes it carries. Since boxes come in two main sizes, 20-foot and 40-foot, the figure is usually quoted in ‘teu’ (twenty-foot-equivalent units, so a 40-foot container is 2 teu). Make sure to check whether your source is talking about teu or number of boxes.

Oil spills aren’t measured in gallons, and what’s a gallon anyway?
The shipping industry measures oil in tonnes – that is 1,000 kilos. If your readers prefer imperial tons, it’s easiest to convert 1:1. The difference is minimal, and it’s almost impossible to measure an oil spill accurately anyway (short tons – 907 kilos – are mainly used for dry cargo and seldom outside the US).

There are about 6½ barrels in a tonne, but it depends on the type of oil. A tonne of West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark crude, is 7.33 barrels. Many papers blithely quote ‘gallons’ without specifying that US gallons are 20% smaller than imperial gallons. It all leads to the conclusion that some writers don’t know or care what the numbers mean.

This piece from AP ( shows a journalist or subeditor getting into a right tangle with their conversions, apparently converting metric tonnes into short tons and then long tons. Sadly, these things are not always checked thoroughly before publication. That begs the question, if the numbers mean nothing to the journalist, the subeditor or the editor, why should they mean anything to the reader? So why are they in the story at all?

Exxon Valdez wasn’t the worst oil spill ever
As I said, it’s very difficult to measure an oil spill. If there’s a fire, some of the oil will be burnt off and some will remain in the ship, whether it’s wrecked or salvaged. But however you measure it, the most famous spill in the past quarter century isn’t the biggest. In fact, Exxon Valdez barely scrapes into the Top 40 (see the list at

If we wanted to measure the importance of an oil spill, we would need to measure the number of rich white people who got upset about it, weighted according to income. As far as I know, nobody is working on such an index. If they were, Exxon Valdez, Erika and Prestige would be much higher up the list (our friends at ITOPF will get you some of the way there), above the less well-known Castillo de Bellver and Atlantic Empress.

Titanic wasn’t the worst passenger-ship disaster ever
Again, the rule of ‘rich white people affected’ comes into play. The loss of 1,517 people a century ago was a tragedy, but it doesn’t compare to more recent disasters such as Le Joola (2002, 1,863 Senegalese) or Doña Paz (1987, over 4,000 Filipinos). If we include wartime casualties, the torpedoing of the German refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff ( in January 1945 holds the record at around 9,000 – six times the toll of the Titanic.

Moral: fact-checking isn’t easy on a deadline.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What is the "New Normal"?

An interesting yet flawed article in today's Guardian suggests that the latest financial crisis has created a "new normal". The writer and the subs seem very pleased with this phrase. It's in the headline, the first sentence and even on the website's front page. 

Don't touch a Frenchman
My first response was on Twitter:

I know every noun can be verbed, but can adjectives be nouned? Welcome to the new normal |

Some people pointed out quite rightly that "the unemployed", "the aged" and "the French" are all acceptable examples of adjectives turning into nouns, and there is a closer analogy in the variants of the fashion slogan "beige is the new black". This is a bit different. Beige, the unemployed and the French are all tangible concepts – literally in the last two cases, and almost unavoidable in the case of the unemployed if the article is to be believed, so numerous will they become. Just be sure to ask permission before touching.

But normal is so abstract a concept that it needs some explanation, and the article doesn't give it. You can talk of 'the normal' as opposed to the abnormal in respect of things or people, but a normal situation already has two nouns: the norm and normality (and Americans even use 'normalcy'). Talk of "the new normal" just sounds pretentious.

Launch your ship before you torpedo it
The writer's and the subs' pride might be justified if they had coined the phrase, but it's hardly new. As David Kenning pointed out, it was the title of a book published in 2004 about entrepreneurial possibilities in the new economy. But that book isn't on, even though a search reveals literally dozens of books using that phrase in their titles, so the reference is hardly specific.

The Guardian has forgotten one of the basic rules: your key hookline has to make some sense. Readers of Larry Elliott's article will ask themselves, "What, exactly, is the new normal?" Sadly, he doesn't tell us. He simply lists several potentially cataclysmic events arising from the latest financial crisis. 

The only conclusion we can draw from his article is that the sudden collapse of the economy is somehow going to be "normal" from now on. For any situation to become normal, it needs to be stable, yet there is nothing stable about a market crash. Fortunately, Elliot answers this puzzle at the end of the article: "The new normal is not really normal at all." In other words, he's created a theory and dismissed it without even telling anybody what it was. It's quite a feat to torpedo your own flagship while it's still on the stocks. Normally, you have to stick your arm up a heifer's backside to get such pure bullshit.

Moral: If you must use nebulous buzzwords, do explain them to the rest of us dullards.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Herstory": a case study in politicised language

Don't trust this man
When I was a student in the 1980s, feminism seemed in a bit of a rut. The headline battles of 1970s feminism had been won in terms of legislation on equality, while the battlegrounds of the 1990s hadn't been properly marked out. Feminists either seemed to be agitating for rematches of the battle their older sisters had already won or were picking fights about matters that seemed frankly trivial, seemingly in order to appear just as radical as earlier generations without having found anything that was worth being radical about.

There were, as it happens, plenty of issues to be radical about, but the problems and more so the solutions weren't so easy to define. Put simply, the enemy had moved. It was almost like an army of crusaders who arrive to find that Jerusalem has already fallen and so have to satisfy their zeal and aggression by massacring the prisoners. So, male students were presented with codes of behaviour insisting, among other things, that they should never speak to a woman unless she speaks first.

You shouldn't trust my student self. I don't
It might have been a case of young, inexperienced feminists having trouble articulating the issues, though it probably says more about my own naïvety, arrogance and inability or unwillingness to understand those issues behind the aggressive rhetoric. It's just possible I've matured a bit since, though there are those that doubt it. No matter, it's too long ago for me to reassess it objectively now.

One thing I found particularly irritating was the insistence that women's history be termed 'herstory'. This word wasn't presented as a portmanteau; its proponents argued that the word 'history' actually meant 'his story' and so de facto excluded women (I'm not making this up: I saw it argued in print and a feminist friend – an English student no less – tried to persuade me it was true). The same instinct inspired the spelling 'womyn' for 'women' in order to remove 'men' from the equation. The reaction – probably inspired by Private Eye – was the derisory term 'wimmin'.

Gimme dat Indo-European groove
If all you care about is the purity of language, then the issue is simple. 'History' comes, via French, from the Latin 'historia'. 'His' is English, not Latin (the Latin for 'his' is 'eius'). The 'his' element of 'historia' comes ultimately from the Indo-European 'wied' (know), and is related to the words 'wise' and 'vision'. Gender doesn't enter into it. 'Woman' comes from the Middle English 'wif-man'. If you're a stickler for consistency, you'd insist that anyone using 'womyn' should also use 'humyn'. However, that would mark you out as excessively confrontational, or simply as a bit of an arse. Still, you'd be right to insist that neither 'womyn' nor 'hersory' has any etymological justification.

For me, that's not enough. I still object to 'herstory', but not as strongly as I used to. I'm quite happy for new terms to enter the language, which is why I always call this collection of essays my 'blog'. However, I will never use the term 'webinar', for the simple reason that it's too damned ugly, and I dislike 'herstory' for the same reason. 

Ghetto academia
Nevertheless, women's history is a completely valid sphere of research, especially since the role of women in history was neglected for so long ("geography's about maps and history's about chaps", as they used to say). However, calling it 'herstory' breaks the link with the rest of history. Instead of bringing women into the mainstream of history, we risk creating a separate ghetto where politicised female historians only talk to each other, leaving historians on both sides of the wall impoverished. At its worst, it can become narrow-minded and ideologically driven, leading to a cult mentality and undermining the objectivity necessary for any academic study.

When women's history (or, better, the role of women in history) is considered within the wider context of history as a whole, we get fresh insights into subjects we thought we already knew. Just as an example, I'll point you to an episode of In Our Time discussing the role of women in Enlightenment science. The research might have been inspired by a feminist outlook, but the result is fascinating for anyone who is interested in the history of science. 

None of this sounds like an acceptance of the term 'herstory', but the term does have its uses as a shorthand (especially in the character-restricted world of Twitter). But I don't think its users should take it too seriously.

Moral: Beware of unintended consequences when inventing new words.
PS. My thanks to @MadamMJo for initiating the Twitter conversation that inspired this post. I respect her very much, but her opinions don't exactly align with mine.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Is this word alright?

About the time of my last romantic catastrophe, a friend asked me how I was feeling. "I'm alright," I shrugged. I certainly wasn't all right. I was just alright: not bad, could be better but surviving.
Leslie Nielsen's on my side

Corresponding with a lot of American editors and language enthusiasts, I'm surprised to find just how appalled they are that anyone would be ignorant enough to use 'alright' as if it's a real word. I've wanted to write about it for a couple of months now, but first I wanted to find out why so many people object to it. Having failed to find a reason beyond a screech of horror, I tweeted the following on Friday:
Altogether, always, although: all fine. So why get uptight about 'alright'?
The response was disappointing. A few tweeters echoed my sentiment…
Good call. I much prefer it to all right... I know it's wrong but it feels so alright. (CJ Wheeler, @Wintriguing)

No good reason. It's a stubborn shibboleth. (@StanCarey)
Give it ten years. Publishers only just coming round to split infinitives. (Eleanor Crawford, @el_crawford)
…but no one wanted a fight. However, the admirable Mark Allen (@EditorMark) sent me a link to his recent blog on that very subject, commenting, "It's one of the top search terms leading people to my blog." Mark has also done us the service of citing all the main dictionaries, so I don't have to. Their conclusions ranged from the hostile to the placidly accepting, but they all stopped short of saying it was correct.

Believe it or not, I'm quite prepared to change my opinion if someone comes up with a persuasive argument, or sometimes I'll change if it seems like I'm in a minority of one among language professionals (the latter explains why I've recently started writing 'no one' without a hyphen).

But I can't see any problem with 'alright'. As with the similarly formed 'altogether', 'always', 'already', etc, the linking of two words creates a new word with a different meaning (see also 'without' and 'anyway', but not 'anytime' or 'anymore', which serve no purpose and are simply wrong). The fact that 'alright' took a longer time to enter the language is immaterial. 'Proactive' didn't join 'active', 'inactive' and 'reactive' until very recently, but it's been embraced like a long-lost child and quite rightly so. 

'Alright' means OK or acceptable, and the construction harks back to the Middle English use of 'al' and 'ful' as modifiers of adjectives. 'All right', on the other hand, means what it says: everything right ("I answered ten questions and got them all right"). Since the two are synophones, it's advisable to split 'all' and 'right' in spoken English to avoid confusion (as in, "I got all of them right") or stress the 'all', which is what we do with other constructions. It doesn't usually cause a problem, unless you're Leslie Nielsen.

'Alright' is so readily accepted in Britain that it even has a phonetic equivalent: "Orright"; which is a Londoner's way of asking, "How are you?" In Manchester, it's "Arright?" and as you get closer to Scotland it's more like "Arreet?"

The reasons to allow 'alright' aren't compelling, but the only argument against it seems to be that it's non-standard, which is no argument at all.

Moral: 'Alright' is alright. If you want a battle, take arms against 'anymore'.

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.