Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It is to be hoped that… hopefully not

I'm fond of John McIntyre's language blog on the Baltimore Sun, and I approve of his recent blogpost arguing that the word hopefully can be used as a sentence adverb (read the post here).

My father used to rail against the use of hopefully when, in his opinion, people should have been saying it is to be hoped that. I naïvely agreed, but not wholeheartedly because his six-word replacement was horribly unwieldy and I was just starting to understand that being correct wasn't always right. Now McIntyre has succinctly pointed out that hopefully isn't even wrong.

McIntyre makes his case the subtle way, simply by using other examples of sentence adverbs. While I agree with his argument, I'm not sure that all his examples stand up. I'm willing to be corrected, but I don't think it's a sentence adverb if the adverb can be attached to the verb without changing the meaning, because that would make it just an ordinary adverb displaced from its usual position next to the verb.

So, @ArrantPedantry's example, “Surprisingly, some people still hold to that rule, but thankfully their numbers seem to be dwindling” cannot be changed to "their numbers seem to be dwindling thankfully". That's a proper sentence adverb alright*. True, a comma before thankfully would restore the original meaning, but only by severing the adverb from the verb again.

But what about the other examples?
"Stubbornly, this superstition refuses to go away" can easily be changed to "This superstition stubbornly refuses to go away", so that's not a sentence adverb.
"Sadly, no amount of explanation suffices to wipe it out" can't be changed to "No amount of explanation sadly suffices to wipe it out", so that is a sentence adverb.
"Foolishly, Strunk and White perpetuates it" can certainly be changed to "Strunk and White foolishly perpetuates it". So again, that's not a sentence adverb, though I admire McIntyre's determination that Strunk and White is the shorthand name for a book and therefore singular, although I'd be inclined to use an ampersand there, just to make it clearer.
"Laughably, people follow it unthinkingly" definitely can't be reorganised as "People laughably follow it unthinkingly", so that is a sentence adverb.
I'll forgive McIntyre's final sentence: "Plainly, sentence adverbs, adverbs that modify an entire clause, do exist in English, and oddly, other than hopefully, cause no uproar when they appear," because he would never write such an awkward sentence unless he were deliberately making a point. But it does demonstrate an argument I made in an earlier post about commas: their numbers proliferate when writers try to control the anarchy of a poorly constructed sentence (see The Riot Police Of Punctuation). 

Six commas in a 24-word sentence is too much. If I were doing my Sentence Doctor thing, I'd rewrite it as follows: 
"Sentence adverbs – adverbs that modify an entire clause – plainly do exist in English. And yet, oddly, only hopefully causes uproar when it appears." 
The one sentence has become two, and four of the six commas have gone; two being replaced by en-dashes (if I were American I'd have used em-dashes without spaces). I have also replaced the negative with a positive. Of course, that would negate the point that McIntyre was trying to make, but it's all grist to my mill for grinding indigestible grains of language into the sweet bread of communication.

Moral: An adverb can be a slippery thing, but that's part of the fun
*One of these days I'll blog about why I think 'alright' is perfectly alright, but bear with me for now.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review of The Idea Hunter

Leverage your super-guru solutions
Remember the dark ages of scrambling to find the right lid for your coffee cup before civilisation was brought blinking into the sunshine world of standard lids? Never mind the budget deficit, a double-dip recession and unwinnable wars, my life was on the verge of collapse from the stress of working out which lid fitted my coffee cup at Starbucks.

The message of 'The Idea Hunter' by Andy Boynton and Bill Fischer is that it didn't take a genius to come up with the idea of a standard-size lid for take-away - sorry, 'to-go' - coffee cups. Wow Einstein, you're telling me that wasn't the work of a genius? No kidding!

Admittedly, 'The Idea Hunter' doesn't get any banal than that, but how could it? It's a formulaic book whose jargonistic language and bland, templated structure makes you want to hate it so much that it's hard to remain objective and recognise any good ideas when they appear. The first 'leverage' (as a verb) is in the preface, 'ongoing' appears on page 1 and we're only on page 5 when the cretinous acronym I-D-E-A makes its painful appearance, followed a page later by 'super-guru'. If you get to page 28, you'll come across the irony-free use of the term "wow-ize". Throughout, we are in the world of the inspirational management mystic - the kind of idiot who gets shown the door in any serious organisation except in America (and even there they went out of fashion a decade ago).

The usual business paragons are here: Warren Buffett, Neutron Jack Welch and Steve Jobs; but the first company to get the sycophancy treatment is Intuit, an organisation whose recent reputation seems to be built less on intuition and more on the old-fashioned and prosaic practice of getting market dominance and squeezing its increasingly captive and unwilling customers for every last cent with the help of well-lobbied regulators.

In some ways, this book lives by the principles it expounds. It insists that the best ideas aren't original but come from using "loose ties", picking up ideas from places that don't have an obvious link with a company's business and doing a lot of talking and reading. This is sensible advice and I won't disparage it.

In keeping with the authors' philosophy, there doesn't seem to be any original research here. All the quotes look like they are second-hand and there is nothing to suggest that the authors met any of the top executives quoted. The arguments follow the standard structure of hypothesis-quote-q.e.d., with little explanation of how to use those examples to advantage. Indeed, it seems to revel in its intellectual shallowness, and it seems the height of vanity to give this method its own trademark.

There is some useful content in here and there is some practical advice later in the book, but its pomposity and grandiose self-importance are extremely off-putting.

Moral: Your writing style can define your market more than you think.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sentence doctor: getting the order of phrases right

What am I to make of this?

Maintaining its status as the largest global ocean carrier was one of the reasons no doubt that led to Maersk placing an order in February 2011 with Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering for ten 18,000 teu ships with an option for twenty more, although the Danish carrier made a great play that the drivers behind ordering this new so-called Triple-E class of ship was fuel efficiency and environmental issues.
This sentence is literate, balanced and nearly incomprehensible. So what mistake has the writer made? It's a common mistake of non-professional writers whose only training was in school or university, where they learned that formality equals gravitas. The easiest way to achieve this formality is by saying things indirectly and putting clauses and phrases in the wrong order. If we do this with a simple concept, then we end up with a sentence like this:

Being bitten by a dog is what happened to him

We all know that this should be written as "a dog bit him", or possibly "he was bitten by a dog" (passive voice is frowned upon by stylists but it's not always wrong). But why don't we apply the same rules of simplicity to more complicated subjects? It's easy to understand "being bitten by a dog is what happened to him" because the concept itself is so simple, but we revolt against its ugliness. If something is harder to understand, why make it more difficult still by using complicated language and sentence structure?

So, how to simplify it? Firstly, let's get rid of unnecessary adjectives. My readers already know that Maersk is a global carrier and that its medium is the ocean. Even so, the word carrier feels a bit naked on its own and it is repeated later, so maybe we'll be better off by changing the order of the phrases. We can simplify the start of the sentence by ordering it naturally: event, public motivation, private motivation. We can also save words by abbreviating the name of the shipyard. While Daewoo has many divisions, we don't need to use the full name of the shipyard to specify which division received an order for ships. Of course it was the shipyard!

By putting the words and phrases in an unnatural order, the writer has had to add words simply to remind the reader who is doing what. A natural order of events flows more easily and enables us to create two much shorter sentences from one heavy and unwieldy one. We have also got rid of the rather vague "led to", which is a soft way of defining motivation. Writing "one of the reasons no doubt" adds to the vacillation, as well as being an awkward order of phrases. It could have been worse: the writer might have used "due to", but don't get me started on that over-used piece of vague association.

So, by re-ordering the sentence, splitting it in two and getting rid of some extra words, we're left with:

When Maersk ordered ten 18,000 teu ships with Daewoo in February 2011, it made a great play that the drivers behind ordering this new so-called Triple-E class of ship were fuel efficiency and environmental issues. However, the Danish carrier was also no doubt keen to maintain its status as the world's biggest shipping line. 
Here, we've managed to say all the same things in 54 words and two sentences instead of 69 words and one. That's a reduction of 22%, which makes the reader's life so much easier. It can probably be improved further, but this was part of a 20,000-word chapter and there's a limit to how much time I can spend on it.  

Moral: Follow a logical order of thought. Your readers will appreciate it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ten words that can make you look foolish

Language evolves by ordinary people coming to a tacit agreement that a certain collection of sounds means a particular thing. In that sense, there is no such thing as "correct" usage, merely consensus.

In reality, the words we use mostly come from older sources, so there are a few meanings already implicit within them. Admittedly, that's not always the case, as some words seem to appear out of nowhere (one of the oldest examples is "dog", which is unrelated to any word in any other language) but mostly it is.

Nonetheless, everyone should take care to use the right word to avoid being misunderstood, so here's a guide to some of the most commonly – or dangerously – misused words.

1. Irregardless
You are misusing this word by using it at all, because it doesn't exist. My guess is that people are conflating "regardless" and "irrespective", which have similar meanings. "Regardless" literally means "without regard to". While it is possible to make a word "irregardless", it would mean "not without regard to". That's an awkward double-negative, meaning (if it means anything at all) "with regard to", which is the opposite of what someone using "irregardless" actually intends to say.

2. Empathy

I wrote a post back in June (here) about the use of words that are similar to familiar words but sound more impressive. The problem is, they often don't mean what the writer thinks they mean. I used the examples "epicentre" and "amphitheatre", but even more common is the confusion of "empathy" for "sympathy".

I trust we all know what "sympathy" means. "Empathy" is being increasingly used as a more intense form of "sympathy", but it means something far more specific: "the power of projecting one's personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation", in other words, feeling the same.

So, a man might sympathise with a woman who is suffering labour pains, but there is no way he can empathise because has never given birth and doesn't even possess many of the body parts that are hurting. When Apple's customer survey asked whether the technician "empathized" with my problem, I couldn't answer because I didn't know if she had ever had the same problem with an iPod. And the Rolling Stones couldn't have begged Empathy For The Devil, since none of their listeners had ever been a supernatural lord of universal evil. Probably.

3. e.g.
Too many writers don't seem to know the difference between "e.g." and "i.e.". They mean "for example" and "that is" respectively, and are abbreviations of the Latin phrases "exempli gratia" and "id est". If you use "i.e.", you have to name everything in the group. So, if you write, "the countries of the European Union, i.e. …", then you have to name all 27 of them. If you use "e.g.", you only need to give a few examples.

4. Cancel
It's becoming quite common for people to use the word "cancel" when they mean "postpone". If an event is cancelled, it won't happen at all, ever. The Guardian should know better, but on Thursday it ran the headline
"Tottenham Hotspur v Everton cancelled due to riots". Similarly, the Daily Mail wrote "Clubs set to cancel opening Premier League fixtures". The same mistake was made by the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror and the Huffington Post, and they weren't alone. Of course the match wasn't cancelled; it was postponed (from the Latin "post", meaning "after", and "ponere", meaning "to put"). You can be 100% certain that it will be played between now and when the season finishes in May.

5. Reign
Monarchs reign. Horses are controlled by reins. So, when you're trying to control something, you rein it in, not reign it in. The Daily Mail got this one wrong last week, when it wrote about "the use of social media to reign in rioters". Interestingly, it got it right in the headline but not the body copy.

6. Dissect
Not only is this word commonly misused, it is also one of the most mispronounced words in the language. "Dissect" means (roughly) to cut up. "Bisect", on the other hand, means to cut in two.

These two words do not rhyme. Look closely: "dissect" has a double-s, while "bisect" only has one, and there's a reason for that. You know the rules of pronunciation: a double consonant shortens the vowel before it, which is why "rising" doesn't rhyme with "missing". The root word is "sect", from the Latin "secare": to cut.

The prefix "dis-", with the sense of "apart", always rhymes with "miss" (and, indeed, with the prefix "mis-"), and I don't need to tell you how to pronounce disrupt, dissolve, dismiss, disappear, etc. The prefix "bi-" (two) nearly always rhymes with "eye": binary, bisexual, bimonthly, bipartisan, etc (though not, interestingly, binoculars).

7. Literally
Everyone knows what this means, if they pause to think about it. Unfortunately, pausing to think is anathema to many people, such as the Radio 5 commentator who reported earlier this year on a player who "literally crawled through the defence to score". Football is a funny game, but I doubt that the goal was scored from a kneeling position. There are so many instances of people saying and writing "literally" when they actually mean the exact opposite – i.e. "figuratively" – that I can't detail them here. Thankfully, someone else has.

8. Guesstimate
Like irregardless, this isn't a word. Unlike irregardless, it's an attempt to express a concept for which no word exists. The reason the word doesn't exist is that the concept doesn't exist either. A guess is a conclusion based on no evidence. An estimate is an approximation based on incomplete evidence. There is no halfway house here: you're either estimating or you're guessing. Either you've got evidence or you haven't. When people say "guesstimate", they're trying to imply that they've got some evidence for what they're saying when they haven't. They're guessing. And lying.

9. Issues
An angry marketing manager heard what I'd said about his press release and marched to my desk, saying, "I hear you've got issues with this." I replied, "No, I've got a problem with it." He was visibly annoyed, so he had no reason for the mealy-mouthed euphemism. An issue is something that needs to be discussed. As everyone in the UK discovered last week, riots are a problem. The underlying cause of the riots is an issue.

A poor press release is a problem. Writing better press releases is an issue. 

10. Leverage (as a verb)
Our old favourite, leverage, is a noun formed from the verb to lever. As a verb, it has a specific, technical meaning to do with debt-financing, and there's nothing wrong with that. Increasingly, however, it is used by business people instead of the more prosaic "exploit". I suppose that users think it gives them an aura of dynamism, rather than an aura of bullshit. They're wrong.

A company I worked for tried to rewrite its mission statement to include the phrase "we will leverage our customers". That sounds positively painful. "Exploit our customers" means the same thing, and at the same time reveals how undesirable such a policy would be – or at least how undesirable it would be to let our customers know how we viewed our business relationship. How can you pursue effective policies in business if you can't even articulate them in comprehensible English?

Moral: The words you use reveal you. The words you misuse betray you.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

You suffer, but why?

I hope I don't have much to learn from the Grammar Girl podcast, but it does show up some interesting topics and is well worth a listen. Occasionally though, I find what I think is an error.

In podcast number 268, she refers to a listener's mother-in-law who has come to live with him "after suffering from a stroke". I think she should have said "after suffering a stroke" (without the "from").

"Suffer" is one of those words that has a both a transitive and an intransitive form, so it can take a direct object but doesn't have to. The transitive form, with the direct object, sounds a bit old-fashioned to some ears, at least most of the time. Since she used a sporting reference in that podcast, I'll use a topical sporting one myself:
"The Indian team suffered from poor preparation, and suffered a heavy defeat." (I'm sure you're all following the cricket as avidly as I am.)
In the context of her example, the mother-in-law is still suffering from the stroke, or, more accurately, suffering from the effects of the stroke. The way she phrased it, using the word "after", suggests that she was referring to the stroke as a single event.

Interestingly, "suffer" is the translation usually given to the Latin verb "patior", from which we get the word "patient". A patient is seen as someone who suffers in the sense of suffering, or allowing, things to be done to him or her. That's the sense intended by the translators of the Bible, when they had Jesus say, "Suffer the children to come unto me." We wouldn't use "suffer" in that sense today, but it does show how the language shifts.

The video, by the way, is largely irrelevant but I couldn't resist the opportunity to link to the shortest song in history: Napalm Death's 'You Suffer', which comes in at an epic 1.3 seconds.

Moral: Words change their meaning. You can suffer it without suffering too much.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My ass

One of the sub-editor's tricks is spotting when over-paid contributors have been burgling off the web.
Tip 1: If the writer's spelling switches from British to American English (or vice versa) for a whole paragraph, it's a good sign that something has been pasted from another source.
Being English, I'll stick to 'labour', 'centre' and 'arse' (no Oxford comma, as you'll notice), but it won't be a disaster for western civilisation if, in 50 years' time, the whole world has moved over to "labor", "center" and "ass".

If it happens, I'll miss the passing of 'arse' because the change of spelling seems to have created a subtle change of meaning. Of course, an ass is a kind of donkey as well as being an American backside, but the difference goes deeper than that. There's something about the 'r' that adds an extra coarseness to the spelling favoured in the British Isles. Just roll that 'r' around your tongue and feel the earthy crudeness of it. Arse. Arse. Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrse. Listen to Father Jack. He's not saying 'ass'. He's saying 'arse'.

In England, you can call someone an 'ass', but that means you're comparing them to a donkey. It's also pronounced differently, rhyming with 'mass'. It's unusual to call someone an 'arse', though 'arsehole' is available and isn't much different in meaning to the American 'asshole'. The American 'ass' is more akin to the English 'bum', which seems to be missing in North America in terms of the human bottom.

Chaucer spelt it 'ers' in the 14th century, so that 'r' has a long history. An ass is cute. An arse isn't. And it was an ass that saw the angel.

Moral: If you want to be really crude, arse is the way to go.