Thursday, November 28, 2013

Why you shouldn't put numbers in text

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

Here’s why.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Farage and the Hitler Youth

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A tour of the Black Museum

Editors of business reports are constantly turning pretentious wankery into something approaching English, in the vain hope that the readers will understand what the writer was trying to say. Sometimes, the process of disentangling a sentence reveals that the writer himself didn't know what he was trying to say.

This blog began life two years ago as an extension of my Twitter feed, which only existed so I could curate the nonsense I sometimes encounter and hopefully share it with anyone who'd appreciate it.

But Twitter doesn't keep tweets forever, so I've collected some of them here for my own enjoyment. You're welcome to enjoy them too. Sometimes I wonder at the thought process that turns what must have been a simple idea into something verbose and vague. If you have any insight into what makes intelligent, articulate people turn their ideas into verbal molasses, do let me know. Sadly, all these are genuine.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Shock news: your toilet is too clean

Another week, another story telling us all the things that are dirtier than a toilet seat. I can't even be bothered to link to it, but don't worry, there'll be another one along in a couple of days. The narrative is always the same: something in your house has more bacteria than your toilet seat. From what I've seen of the research - because, like almost no journalist nowadays, I looked beyond the press release and read the actual research - this is the story that should have run:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Should top journalists write their own stories?

Lee gets his name in the noosepapers
Oh, the irony.

There was a story in the Daily Telegraph last month headlined Top comedians don't write their jokes, claims Stewart Lee. In this shocking exposé, top journalist Rosa Silverman revealed … well, pretty much what it says in the headline. 

In a strange coincidence, only 24 hours before Silverman filed her story, top journalist Jonathan Brown had run a very similar story in the Independent. What made this coinicidence even stranger was that they were reporting part of a talk that the comedian had given several months before.

Lee wasn't happy about this, but it wasn't Silverman or Brown who attracted his ire.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Leveraging your customer experience

There are plenty of companies like Nunwood, using jargon to impress and doing just the opposite. Still, Nunwood is a particularly juicy example.

I found myself exposed to the company's incredible self-delusion in April, when I filled in a survey it had created for my gas and electric company. I looked at its website and found enough there for a whole blog post about meaningless, corporate jargon.

More recently, I looked at the company's Twitter feed. This was too good not to share.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Corporation-speak: a phrasebook

A new language for addressing the public has evolved in recent decades. It has no official name, but its most essential feature is insincerity. It began as a dialect of English, but it passes the test of being a separate language because it is now incomprehensible to English speakers.

There are two main dialects of this new language: 'Bureaucratic Obscurantism' and 'Corporate Bollocks'.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Confused words, part 3

Here's a less-than-magnificent seven pairs (or, in one case, trio) of commonly confused words.

Compose / Comprise
I made a horrible mistake on Twitter recently. I pasted a phrase from a draft report where the writer had made the common error of writing "comprises of". Then I 'corrected' it and only did half the job. 
Oops. The resulting firestorm almost got me thrown out of the International Siblinghood of Grammar Pedants. I was only saved by the fact that this was an error of vocabulary, not grammar, and the ISG is nothing if not a stickler for the rules. Still, it makes me shiver just to think about it.

If a thing is made up of other things, either "it is composed of" them or "it comprises" them (no 'of'). Similarly, the things that make up a bigger thing "compose" it. But nothing can "be comprised of" or "comprise of" anything else.

So, you can say the following:
The alphabet comprises 26 letters
The alphabet is composed of 26 letters
Twenty-six letters compose the alphabet (awkward, I know, but technically correct)
But not:
The alphabet is comprised of 26 letters
The alphabet comprises of 26 letters
If that's too hard to remember, just remember that 'of' never goes with 'comprise'.

Interment / Internment
The dead are interred. The living are interned, by becoming 'internal' to an organisation (or, in the case of the disastrous anti-terrorism policy in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, imprisoned without trial).

An interment is a funeral, where the star of the show is put in terra, i.e. in the ground. 

Phase / Faze
The British suffer more than Americans from the belief that the letter 'Z' is somehow vulgar, so they're more likely to write "unphased" when they mean "unfazed". Since a phase is a set period of time in which something specific happens, being phased should only happen to traffic lights, or possibly the villains in Star Trek. 

Raise / Raze
You've got to wonder at the logical failure of anyone who writes "raised to the ground", unless they're talking about leaving the basement. It helps if you know a bit of French: razer means to shave; but surely we're all familiar enough with razors? 

Peak / Peek
There's an irritating Twitter robot called @StealthMountain that will correct you for writing "sneak peak" instead of "sneak peek". It's had to do this more than 300,000 times in 18 months, which is about once every two minutes. I suppose it's a necessary public service, but it's annoying if you were only pointing out someone else's error. It could have been worse: the robot might have called itself @ClandestineOrgasm.

Ordnance / Ordinance
Again, one little letter makes a difference. An ordinance is an official decree, and all acts of Parliament were called ordinances during the eleven years when England was a republic (1649-60). The UK's official map-maker is often mistakenly called the Ordinance Survey - presumably people think this refers to some law - but it's actually the Ordnance Survey. Get it wrong when typing the URL and you'll end up in a fake site full of malware. 
For security reasons, this map is not available in France

Ordnance is ammunition (as in, "the battlefield was littered with spent ordnance") or artillery. Some people have suggested a sinister reason for the British Board of Ordnance getting the job of surveying the country, as if the government was planning to impose martial law (after all, the project began during the panic following the French Revolution), but the simpler answer is that the government feared an invasion and wanted to give the British artillery an advantage on any battlefield in southern England. Once Napoleon had been safely dispatched, the Ordnance went ahead and surveyed the rest of the country, since they had nothing better to do and no one was better qualified to do the job. 

Cite / Site / Sight
I always feel slightly dirty if I read a newspaper article about bad grammar and then go looking for mistakes. Hunting down errors in the comments section is even worse. It's like pornography: one has a perfectly legitimate interest in the subject, but it still feels like a cheap way of gaining fulfilment. 

There's also the danger of making a mistake yourself, so I restrained myself from correcting Ginghead. He or she had replied to a comment below a Guardian article on 'Grammar rules everyone should follow' with the following:
Ginghead's use of "sighted" might have been right, of course, if HardcorePrawn had actually seen the example he mentioned. But Ginghead insists that he can't have done so. The word he was looking for is 'cite': "to quote or refer to (a passage, book, or author) in substantiation as an authority, proof, or example" (Collins).

Sight and site, while normally nouns, can also be verbs: 'sight' as a more forceful form of 'see' while 'site' means to put in place, as in:
"As the building site came into sight, she sighted where her department was to be sited."
I'll leave it to any German-speaking readers to concoct a joke about how 'site' is a place while zeit is time. They can then argue with the theoretical physicists about whether there's really any difference. 

See also:
Nine (or eighteen) commonly mistaken words: Loose, Infer, Forgo, Empathise, Lay, Principal, Pry, Fare, Discrete
More Confused Words Dowse, Slander, Illicit, Scold, Founder, Flail
Mistaken words: couples or just good friends?  Treble, Choose, Discomfit, Last/Past, Alternate, Forbear, Cancel/Postpone, Market(place), Affect
(yes there are three, so this post is technically part 4: proof that maths fails me as often as words. Still, even the Vatican can't number its popes properly)

Moral: Feel free to set up your own Twitter robot, but don't tread on the toes, and definitely not the foothills, of @StealthMountain.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The letter L deserves some Love

Every now and then, somebody comes up with a poll for the most beautiful word in the English language. This is as gloriously pointless an exercise as I can imagine, but pointless fun is under-rated even in this post-Protestant-work-ethic world.
Joanne Whalley gives Michael Gambon the Spanish Archer

Last time I bothered to read such a survey, the surprising answer was 'elbow'. A fine rock band to be sure - and they got the idea from Dennis Potter's Singing Detective - but a curious choice for the best word in English. It's even slang for ending a relationship (also known as the Spanish Archer: El Bow - get it?). Still, it contains the unsung star of this post: the letter L. 

Not since the Muppet Show has the letter L got the praise it deserves. It's surely the most derided letter in English, at least since Shakespeare wrote "thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter".

Old King Cola
I know what you're asking yourself: why is L more derided than H, U or Q? The answer lies in psychology. Remember the Pepsi challenge? (Or is it the Coke challenge? I can never remember. Regular readers of this blog already know that I only drink Rioja.) In truth, I can't remember the brand so let's just call it Coksi.

In a blind tasting, members of the public were asked to choose between cola L and cola M. They preferred cola M, and they preferred it in sufficiently large numbers to justify a major marketing campaign. The marketers weren't surprised: not because they knew their product was best but because they'd rigged the survey in a way that Derren Brown would appreciate.

This was demonstrated when someone else did exactly the same experiment but with the labels switched. People rejected Coksi in almost exactly the same numbers that they had preferred it in Coksi's own experiment. Why? Because they didn't prefer Coksi to any other cola: they preferred any letter to the letter L

Subconsciously, L is the most visually unappealing letter in the alphabet. Not only is it one of the least symmetrical, it has a yawning void in the middle. It lacks substance. It lacks anything you can grab hold of. The Coksi challenge wouldn't work in any country that didn't use the Roman alphabet.

But aurally, L is a lovely letter. The delicate flick of tongue against the teeth suggests all sorts of things. Kissing is the act of two people saying the word 'love' into each other's mouths: making the letter L with someone else's teeth. 

The letter L does some wonderful things when it follows a strong consonant: it softens and creates a sense of comfort. Look at these words:
That combination of short vowel, strong consonant and an L positively radiates comfort, security and warmth. Even the word 'Nurdle', which describes a carefully placed shot in cricket or a small blob of toothpaste, suggests delicacy and care (I don't advise you to click on that second link). 'Elbow' is good, but there's nothing quite like the consonant-L combination to make a lovely word.

Oddly, lengthening the vowel dispels the effect, leaving you with something seedy like 'sidle' or 'ogle', or Google, which as we all know is now the archetype of corporate evil.

Moral: Cuddle an L today. You'll be a better person for it.

Friday, May 10, 2013

America versus Britain

We all know that US and UK English often have different words for the same thing (gasoline v petrol, sidewalk v pavement, etc). The global presence of American entertainment means that people in the UK are familiar with most of them, and some American words are commonly used in the UK nowadays (so 'movie' seems to co-exist quite happily with 'film'). Others, such as 'furlough', didn't survive the Atlantic crossing, while many Britons have never even heard of 'maven' or 'hazing'.

But there is a more select group of words that mean one thing in Britain and another in America. It's as well to be on your guard if you don't want to be misunderstood.

First floor

Walk into an American building and you're already on the first floor. In the UK, that's called the ground floor: you have to take the stairs to get to the first floor. I've been told that for superstitious reasons American buildings sometimes missed out the 13th floor, so by the 14th floor the British would be two floors behind. Be that as it may, if you were to jump from the 14th floor of a building, the result would be pretty much the same whichever side of the Atlantic you were on. 

If you really want to get onto a different plane, I recommend the 13th Floor Lifts … sorry, Elevators.

Speaking of heights, if your captain announces that you'll be taking off "momentarily", you'd better pray you're on an American airline. The people unbuckling their seatbelts and scrambling for the exits will be British, for whom 'momentarily' doesn't mean 'in a moment', it means 'for a moment'.

This is a slightly different distinction, but one that journalists especially need to be aware of. You need to know if you're reading a British or American source, because an Imperial gallon is 20% bigger than an American one. They're both eight pints, but that's because Imperial pints are also 20% bigger. 

There's no point me listing all the conversions; you won't bookmark this page just for that. Just bookmark ConvertMe instead. It gives you every conversion at once, so if you read a suspiciously accurate-looking number, say 24.2 gallons, you'll immediately see that that's 100 litres, so it's a good guess that you're dealing with American gallons (and that 24.2 gallons is misleadingly precise for what was probably only an estimate in the first place). 

It's about two decades since Britain's most conservative newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, bowed to the inevitable and adopted the US billion (1,000 million) instead of the British billion (a million million, now generally known as a trillion). If you're more conservative than the Daily Telegraph, then the 21st Century really isn't for you.

The only reason for bringing this up is that you'll occasionally come across 'milliard', which is the old-fashioned word for what (nearly) everyone now calls a billion and is still used in many European countries. This is because Europeans take great delight in being incomprehensible to the British and Americans, going so far as pretending to have their own languages just to annoy tourists. 

Shipping and transportation
I work in the shipping industry. Being British, that means I'm involved with maritime transport (not transportation: that's the carriage of convicts to the colonies). It's an annoyance, because a web search for my industry turns up all sorts of American retailers, because for them 'shipping' simply means what the British usually call 'delivery'. This seems odd, since ships are highly unlikely to be used for delivering anything in the US, given the geography of the place and the dead hand of the Jones Act, but Americans don't have a monopoly on illogical terms, as anyone who has been to a British public (i.e. private) school will attest.

Public Schools
English public schoolboys smoking, 1980.
I often wonder what happened to Nigel Farage (left)
This seems simple, but British public schools are anything but public. These are the bastions of privilege where rich parents can send their kids in the hope that one day they'll run the country without ever having had to rub shoulders with the lower orders, all of whom go to government-run schools ("public" means that the schools are run by members of the public, not the state). 

State-run schools are called 'comprehensives'; the idea being that everyone gets a comprehensive education in everything that this week's minister of education thinks is important, based either on his experiences at a public school (if he's a Tory) or his experiences in the National Union of Students (if he's Labour, having vigorously rejected everything he learned at his own public school).

For a brief period in the 1960s and 70s, the government paid for less well-off kids to go to public schools, which is how I ended up knowing a bit of Latin, while also getting the chance to take the sort of photo (above) whose blackmail value I have never properly exploited. 

If you're going to be strict about it, one of the two uses of this word is correct and the other isn't. If you're American, you might be irritated to find that the popular American usage is technically wrong.

A 'moot point' is a point that is open to further discussion. In Anglo-Saxon England, the 'moot' was the meeting of elders and wise men (the word has the same origin as the modern English 'meet'), so a 'moot point' was a point that was to be decided at a later date. So, in British English a moot point is a matter that is undecided.

In American English, a moot point is one that is unworthy of further discussion. This developed from the moots of law societies, whose meetings never decided anything. In this sense, it mirrors the difference between the British and American uses of the verb 'table'…

In Britain, an issue that has been tabled has been put on the table for discussion. Effectively, it's a live topic. In the USA, an issue that has been tabled has been put aside, so it's a dead topic. The meanings are the complete opposite of each other. An English reader seeing the word 'tabled' in a US publication should substitute the word 'shelved', replacing one piece of furniture with another. 

Both continents use "pissed off", meaning unhappy and disillusioned. The shorter "pissed" has the same meaning in America but is quite different in Britain, where it means inebriated. This probably causes more amusement in Britain than America. For an American, getting pissed with your lawyer is the normal state of affairs. To British ears, it sounds like the entire plot of Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas.

Follow the signs into a subway in London and all you're likely to find is a tramp (or bum: see below). You might also stumble across an underground railway, but that would be a happy coincidence because a subway is just an underground road crossing.

This is a meatball, or a bundle of sticks for lighting a fire, although most Britons understand that it means something quite different in America. It is not to be confused with 'fag', which as everyone knows is a cigarette. Despite the growing intolerance shown towards cigarette smokers in the UK, smoking fags is far more anti-social in the USA.

Since this post is rapidly degenerating into a carnival of crude slang, it would be a dereliction of duty to ignore the fact that a 'fanny' is roughly the American equivalent of the British 'bum'. What Americans call a bum, the British would call a tramp. What  Americans call a tramp, the British would probably call a slut (if they were ill-mannered enough to use the word at all). 

As for the British 'fanny' … well, how can I put this delicately? If you touched an American fanny without permission, you'd probably get a slap. If you did the same to a British fanny, you'd probably get three years.

Moral: Know your audience

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How not to write a press release

I have thrown away more press releases than you've had hot dinners.

No, really. Look, here's the maths:
Press release carnage (I used to get more than 10 a day, but I didn't throw them all away)

13 years as an editor @ 10 press releases a day @ 240 working days per year = 31,200
5 years as a publisher @ 10 press releases a week = 2,500
Total = 33,700
Chilli con carnage, and other hot meals (assuming an average age of 50)
50 years @ 1 hot dinner per day [a reasonable average, I feel] = 18,250
Of course, you might have had three hot meals a day since being weaned, in which case you would have surpassed my press release count by the age of 31, assuming you lived that long on such a diet. But I think my assertion stands up to analysis, at least for most people.

Here's one I didn't throw away. I didn't keep it because it was good; quite the opposite. Please forgive me for posting it in full, although I've cut out the list of speakers and the 'about us' blurb:

International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC) hailed as key to effective implementation of MLC 2006
A ship's crew, yesterday
On Friday 19 April 2013, IMEC held its inaugural International Maritime Conference in London. The conference focussed on MLC 2006 and the employment of seafarers. It brought together over 65 delegates and speakers from across the world, representing every MLC 2006 stakeholder including ship-owners, employers, trade unions, flag state, P&I clubs, and the legal industry.
Speaking at the event, Giles Heimann, IMEC Chief Executive Officer, said:
“The MLC is the most significant piece of maritime legislation for many years and, rightly, has been a focus of recent industry events. However, in our conference we have achieved something exceptional.

“Today’s delegates have heard from a unique series of speakers:  IMEC members, the ITF, the ILO and representatives of all areas of the industry who are affected by MLC. They have also been given the chance to quiz these same speakers in an open and honest panel debate.”
The key-note speaker, Dr Cleo Doumbia-Henry, Director of Labour Standards for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and one of the chief-architects of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), praised IMEC’s contribution to the implementation of the most significant piece of maritime legislation in recent history.
“The activities of IMEC, with its international membership, are key to achieving effective implementation in many regions,” said Dr Doumbia-Henry.

“I am aware of the important efforts undertaken by IMEC in developing agreements with the ITF to implement many aspects of the MLC 2006 well in advance of entry in force.

“This has been tremendously helpful and can only make it easier for governments to ratify and implement and ultimately, of course, achieve the Convention’s goals.”
MLC 2006 becomes binding for the first 30 countries with registered ratifications on 20 August 2013. This group of countries is very significant as it includes the largest flag states, as well as many key port states. It also includes countries that are home to the majority of the world’s seafarers and are the location of private seafarers’ recruitment and placement services.
“The role of employers, our members, in the practical implementation of MLC cannot be underestimated,” added Mr Heimann. “We are committed to working with our members in the run-up to its introduction in August 2013, and to continue working with them to secure effective and fit-for-purpose provision for seafarers and employers alike.”
“Vital to this effective provision is an understanding and cooperation between all interested parties. We are proud to have brought together such a varied group of major stakeholders in the same room and remain committed to working with them.”
[List of speakers]

The conference was held the day after IMEC’s Annual General Meeting, which attracted a record number of attendees. 2013 sees the beginning of the next round of International Bargaining Forum (IBF) negotiations over the wages and conditions of seafarers serving on ships to which IBF Special Agreements apply.
It's a bit long at 481 words, but not disastrously so. The problem is the content, or lack of it. Can you imagine wanting to read a story with the headline "IMEC hailed as key to MLC 2006" (I've cut it down to fit on the hypothetical page)? Since this is an industry press release, it's reasonable to assume I know what MLC 2006 is (it's the Maritime Labour Convention), but what does this press release add to the debate? The answer, if we boil the release down to its bare essentials, is nothing. Here's the press release expressed as bullet points, with the comments of a jaded editor in italics:
  1. IMEC has held its first ever conference. Like I give a toss.
  2. The conference studied the labour convention. Really? There was me thinking they were discussing the role of unicorns in medieval heraldry. What did they say about it?
  3. The convention is important. I already know that.
  4. The conference was "exceptional", apparently because there was a Q&A session. Hate to break it to you, old bean, but someone had that idea before you.
  5. The ILO (which drafted the convention) thinks the IMEC has been helpful. Splendid. My kids think I'm great too. Shall I whip out a press release?
  6. The convention becomes binding in August. OK, this is significant, but it's hardly news.
  7. Negotiations over wages and conditions begin this year Again, this is hardly news.
Normally I would try to pick this release apart to suggest how it could have been done properly, but there is literally nothing here. The journalist's only recourse is to call the press officer and ask, "Did anything interesting happen at your conference?" Few journalists have the time to follow up a press release that doesn't even offer the hint of a lead, which is why (so far as I can tell) none of the industry publications have carried a story based on this one. In fact, this blog post is probably the only coverage this release will get.

I'm left with the suspicion that this press release wasn't meant for the press but was written purely to caress the egos of the conference organisers.

Moral: Don't waste our time and yours.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Corporate clichés: "Dedicated to mediocrity"

I'm filling in a survey for gas and electricity supplier nPower, run by a market research company called Nunwood. Nunwood's slogan is "experience excellence". 

As you can see, Nunwood abhors capital letters. That's not a major crime in the world of corporate branding (you might think 'nPower' is worse), and I'm not even complaining about the clichéd slogan. I don't mean that "experience excellence", with or without caps, is a good slogan; it's simply the kind of bland cliché whose awfulness doesn't stand out in the vast ocean of corporate mediocrity.

It's a sad state of affairs when the word 'excellence' has come to be a shorthand for timidity and lack of imagination, but this is how too many organisations think.

Chances are, unless you work in marketing, your only experience of Nunwood will be its surveys. Their wording displays such a degree of sloppiness and imprecision that one would think it was deliberate. The public's "experience" is hardly one of "excellence", unless "excellence" has come to mean "carelessness and inattention to detail".

Take this question: "How much do you spend on gas and/or electricity?" Yes, it's our old friend "and/or", used by people who can't be bothered to decide which word they want to use. How am I expected to answer that question? Do they want to know how much I spend on gas, on electricity or both? The answers are very different.

Then there's a series of questions, introduced thus: "The communication I receive from npower…". That's right, Nunwood can't even be bothered to follow its customer's naming style (nPower). Excellence, or casual disregard? 

Irritatingly, Nunwood insists on referring to its customer in the plural: "npower are a company that…". In other words, it uses the format "It are a thing."

It might seem petty to damn a company simply on the basis of one survey, but surely that is the face it offers to the world, so it's fair game. But if you want to look deeper, may I direct you to the unintentional hilarity that is the company's website (url:, where the clichés are almost falling over themselves:

We provide an end-to-end approach to customer experience management: a platform to move organisations from the desire to excel, through change, to leading performance.

To do this, we combine customer insight, analytics, consultancy and frontline training with our Fizz Customer Experience Management Software.
Alongside these capabilities, we provide clients with an advanced, detailed view of what cutomer experience excellence looks like: Nunwood's Customer Experience Excellence Programme is one of the largest international studies of best practice.
Underpinning this, the Customer Experience 5M Transformational Model is a proven framework for moving organisations from aspiration to excellence
I especially like the spelling mistake ("cutomer"); it's almost as if someone put it in deliberately, in case you weren't convinced that "excellence" was meant as a joke.* I'll let you mine the rest of the site for more pearls of non-wisdom, but I'll leave you with the almost poetically bad "Energising the organisation to achieve breakthrough change". 

Moral: Corporate literature makes more sense if you mentally change the word 'excellence' to 'mediocrity'. 

* Shortly after publishing this post, I noticed that someone from Nunwood had been looking at my LinkedIn profile (nothing wrong with that: it's there to be looked at). The spelling mistake on the website has now been corrected. The clichés are still there.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Defuse or diffuse?

What's wrong with this sentence?
In the UK, the old offence of incitement has been replaced with the much weaker offence of ‘assisting and encouraging’, which includes such defuse crimes as ‘encouraging’ the accessory to a crime (rather than the principal offender), encouraging a preparatory offence (rather than a criminal act), and encouraging an offence which is at the time impossible to commit (therefore a crime that could never have happened, with all the encouragement in the world).
Spiked Online, 11 March 2013
Well, lots of things, although the title of this post gives a tiny clue as to where I'm going with this. You can choose from the following:
  1. It's too long, at 72 words
  2. The phrase "In the UK" implies that there is such a thing as UK law, which there isn't (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legal systems)
  3. It uses a serial (Oxford or Harvard) comma: "a preparatory offence (rather than a criminal act), and…"
  4. It says "an offence which…" instead of "an offence that…"
  5. It talks about "defuse crimes"
Only 4 and 5 are actually wrong. The Oxford comma is only wrong in terms of style: few UK publications favour it and Spiked isn't one of them. In most US publications it would be fine (and probably compulsory). A 72-word sentence is generally not good style, but this sentence provides a list of legal definitions, which is bound to bump up the word count. It's readily comprehensible, so I'd leave it alone. Point 2 is almost the epitome of pernicketiness.

In Point 4, "impossible to commit" clearly distinguishes such an offence from all other offences, so the writer should have used 'that' instead of 'which' (see my earlier post here) 'Which' probably seemed preferable because of the awkward order of words.

But Point 5 is the real howler. The writer should have written 'diffuse'. She has used completely the wrong word, which in a piece about legal precision is a bad mistake.
Defuse (verb): to remove a fuse, or, when used figuratively, to make something safe
Diffuse (verb or adjective): widely scatter(ed)
'Defuse crimes' would be the illegal disarming of bombs, which I think neatly comes under Point 4: "an offence … impossible to commit".

Moral: Similar-sounding words can have diffuse meanings. When an editor spots such an obvious mistake, he'll suddenly find lots of other things wrong with your writing.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Countries and people: whose word do you use?

Back in the 1980s, a friend forced me to sit through a video of the Michael Schenker Group. Part way through the gig, the American singer introduced the band, bellowing out, "From Scotland, England: Chris Glen!" Glen left the band shortly after that, which seems an extreme reaction but it goes to show how sensitive people are about nationality.

You can tie yourself in knots about what to call foreign countries and people, or you can just say, "Sod it, I'll use whatever word I want." One should be sensitive to other people's feelings but one can't be totally governed by them. For instance, I've been told that Turks want us to call their country Türkiye, as they do, but all three of my Turkish friends call it "Turkey" when speaking and writing English. Similarly, I'm told the Dutch don't like being called 'Dutch' (see the Twitter exchange on the right), but what's the alternative?
There are 80 million people in Turkey and 17 million in the Netherlands. Chances are they don't all have the same opinion, and many of them probably have no opinion at all on what you call them or their country. Don't worry about it.

Other countries are more sanguine. No German would expect an English speaker to call his country Deutschland, and the Japanese are quite happy that we don't call them Nihon-jin (Nippon is also correct, but terribly old-fashioned, like calling England 'Albion'). And, boot on the other foot, what's the Japanese word for 'English person'? Do you know? Do you care? (It's 'Igurisu-jin', if you must know.*) Are you, if you're English, going to insist on the correct term? Of course you're not. In some ways, I'm flattered that they have their own word for my country and language. It suggests it's important to them, and what could be more flattering than that?

Tying yourself in knots will leave you like the hapless Guardian newspaper, which is so desperate to be correct that it can't see any kind of perspective. Look at this exchange from a live report of a cricket match in India in 2011, in which the writer reports the events of the match while fielding emails from fans (not just any cricket match, but one of the greatest ever World Cup matches):
21st over: India 116-1 (Tendulkar 44, Gambhir 33) Five from Yardy's over: two singles, a two and a wide. England have got to take wickets in these middle overs or the death overs could be extremely painful. "Please stop calling it Bengaluru," says Robin Percival. "The English name for the city is Bangalore; just as the English name for Roma is Rome or Moscva is Moscow. I have just returned from spending over five weeks in Bangalore and everyone I spoke to (in English) referred to the city as Bangalore. Of course I do not speak Kannada and if I did I would call it Bengaluru. English language papers in India such as The Hindu refer to the city as Bangalore. Why can't the Guardian?" Don't shoot the style guide adherer. I know I am a maverick, but I will never – never – deviate from the Guardian style guide. My life would not be worth living. (Guardian, 27 February 2011)
Subsequent overs report other readers' comments, including a bemused Sriraghavan B: "I am from Madras, India and I still call it that way as do many of my relatives, neighbours and friends and many more. It never occurred to me that I should say Chennai as I feel that it is not right." 

And God help you if you call all Eskimos Inuits, because most of them aren't. I'm sorry for pasting this whole exchange, but the relevant episode of QI isn't on YouTube and you'd have to register with the website to read it in its original location:
The word "Eskimo" is non-PC in Canada, much as it's fine in Alaska. The particular indigenous person of the north who was featured on QI was a Yupi'ik from Alaska - Sarah Palin's husband is one of those as well - and hence "Eskimo" rather than "Inuit" is the term to use. The plural of Yup'ik is Yupiit.

Had the person been an Aleut, then again "Eskimo" might have caused offence. The Aleut are very sure that they are not Eskimos; while they don't object to "Aleut", they prefer one Unangax̂, two Unangax, three or more Unangan. (Note that most of the Eskimo-Aleut languages have what's called a dual number; this comes between singular and plural and is used when there are two of something. It's rare in European languages; Slovenian and Sorbian have it, and it's on the point of vanishing from Lithuanian.)

The indigenous people of Baffin Island and such like places absolutely are Inuit, although "an Inuit" or "lots of Inuits" are always going to be wrong since "Inuit" is the plural. One Inuk, two Inuuk, three or more Inuit.

While the people of the central Arctic would prefer Inuinnaq to Inuit, they won't get especially upset at the more general word. As for indigenous Greenlanders, the preferred term is Kalaallit, singular Kalaaleq. (There's no dual in Greenlandic.)
(And for those who are interested, here's a case study from QI on how they got the question about Jerusalem - the song - wrong.)

The Guardian style guide might try to do the right thing by pressure groups, but if none of its readers understand what it's talking about then surely it has failed. The readers make their own rules, not always logically, so Pinyin spellings for Chinese names have largely been accepted ('Beijing' instead of 'Peking', etc) while only 'Mumbai' of the new Indian names has really caught on.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: whatever you write, you write for your readers. As soon as you put anyone else's interests before the interests of your readers, you've abandoned your responsibilities as a writer.

Moral: If someone else has their own word for my country or language, I'm not offended. I'm flattered.

* No it isn't. See the comments.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

You can't say that!

If you can't bear to read taboo words, don't read on. They're here in full. The post wouldn't make sense if they weren't. My use of them should not imply approval.

Two years ago on BBC Radio 4's The Today Programme, the appropriately named James Naughtie accidentally started saying Jeremy Hunt's job title (culture secretary) before he'd finished uttering his name. Thus, the UK's most prestigious radio programme – the sort of show that can get the prime minister as a guest (and, on one occasion, me) – accidentally broadcast the word 'cunt' just as the nation was settling down to its muesli. 

Everyone had fun at Naughtie's expense, and BBC London radio asked its listeners whether some words were too offensive ever to be uttered; words such as "the c-word, the n-word and the j-word". I was tempted to ring up and ask, "What the cunting fuck is the j-word?" How can you have a reasoned discussion if you're so timid that the audience can't be told what you're discussing? For instance, this story from AP would have had less impact if we had been prevented from knowing what the "racial slur" was.

By the way, if you know what the j-word is, please leave it in the comments below, along with any other choice obscenities that come to mind.

The issue is so charged that an aide to Washington DC's mayor was famously forced to resign in 1999 after describing his budget as "niggardly". He was later reinstated, but others have complained about its use since then, while anti-PC campaigners have sniggered in the background.

So, in the spirit of reasoned discourse, how about a quiz? Question 1 of 1: which of these statements is more offensive?
A) "I don't know if they fags or what
Search a nigga down and grabbin his nuts"
Ice Cube of rap crew Niggaz Wit Attitudes, from the song 'Fuck Tha Police'
B) "Woman is the Nigger of the World" Title of a song by John Lennon (the phrase was coined a few years earlier by his wife, Yoko Ono)
C) "I fucking hate niggers"
Young man on my local high street who was threatening to beat up the black traffic warden who had just given his friend a parking ticket
If you're a grammar pedant or just a lover of words, then it's clearly A, because there's no justification for writing "tha" instead of "the". But if you agree with the apparent media consensus that "nigger" is too offensive a word ever to be uttered or written, then they're all as offensive as each other. This is surely nonsense.

Start typing the Lennon quote into Google and its auto-complete feature offers "woman is the n of the world". Yes, even Google can't bear to let you see this word, although it will happily offer you "fuck", "cunt" and the full wording of The Stranglers' "I Feel Like A Wog". Read into that what you will. 

(For non-English readers, "wog" is a term of general racial abuse, although some say it specifically refers to Indians. It has fallen out of fashion since the 1970s.)

It seems clear to me that C is far more offensive than A or B. NWA, like many other hip-hop groups, are happy to describe themselves as "niggaz". Not only are they reclaiming the word, in the same way as gays reclaimed "queer", but they are also using it as a term of empowerment. This isn't new. Sixties revolutionaries Jefferson Airplane, accused by vice-president Spiro Agnew of helping to destroy American society, sang: "Everything they say we are, we are / And we are very proud of ourselves."

Regardless of the change of spelling, it's still the same word, especially when spoken. That surely disproves the argument that the word can never be uttered. It's only offensive as a term of abuse, which is why it's inconceivable that any non-black person could use it to describe a black person unless they intend to be racially abusive. Simply saying it in a reasoned discussion about language shouldn't be offensive at all, although it certainly jars on the eye and ear. 

Ono and Lennon used it not as a racial description but as a class label. They could have used "serf", but it wouldn't have worked as a slogan and they would have sounded like history professors. 

It would be difficult to accuse NWA of racism, but they could certainly be accused of homophobia. If anyone takes offence at their lyrics, it will be because they called the police "fags", in a way that clearly implies contempt for gay men. It's not the language that's offensive, but the intention behind it: NWA used the politically incorrect "fag" and the far more offensive "nigger", but they were being homophobic, not racist. 

Moral: Fight foul ideas, not foul language.

Monday, March 4, 2013

"-ess" bend: the curious resurgence of 'authoress'

Louise Bolotin took issue with me about the decline of the word 'actress'. I argued that actors and actresses perform distinct roles and so it's not unreasonable for them to have different titles. Read her counter-argument here.

I contrasted it with the word 'authoress', thinking that this pointless and patronising word had almost disappeared. Type 'authoress' into Google and, sure enough, you get 700,000 results, while a search for 'author' returns 2.3 billion results. Even though there are about as many female authors as male ones, the generic term outnumbers the female term by over 3,000 to one. 

So I ran an n-gram on the word 'authoress', just to confirm its demise. Sure enough, use of the word declined by 94% from its peak in the mid-19th Century to the year 2000 (which is where the n-gram graph stops by default). 

But then I took the date range out to 2008, which is as late as n-grams go, and guess what? The word is undergoing a resurgence. If the n-grams are to be believed (and they're not totally reliable), use of the word 'authoress' has more than doubled since the turn of the century and the word is more popular now than it has been for 30 years. Its rise is more than twice as fast as its earlier decline. At this rate, it will be more popular than ever by about 2020.

What's going on here? The only information I can find on the web is from the blog of "authoress" Venus de Mileage (no, really), who defends her use of it here. She also describes herself as a villainess. Every other page I looked at confidently asserted that the word 'authoress' is archaic and no longer used, even though the only available evidence points the other way.

With such scanty information to go on, I can only speculate, based on the observation that Ms de Mileage's website has an overwhelmingly black colour scheme. This makes me think of the Gothic renaissance in literature, which has made a millionaire(-ess?) of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. While vampires have become steadily more popular since the 1960s, the n-gram shows a more interesting phenomenon that mirrors the fortunes of authoress: the return of the archaic spelling 'vampyre':
There's a spooky similarity between the Vampyre and Authoress n-grams, even down to the mini-revival in the late 1920s. Clearly, writers are finding inspiration and a ready market in a genre closely associated with the 19th Century, and signal this by their use of appropriately archaic terms. Maybe this explains the return of 'authoress'.

Moral: Some words die; others become undead.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

More confused words

The last time I wrote about oft-confused words, it wasn't meant to be an exhaustive list. This post isn't the last word on the matter either.

Douse vs Dowse
I have a proof copy of Adrian McGinty's splendid new detective novel, in which it says: "…he tried to dowse the flames…". I presume it got corrected in the published book, so I won't be scurrying off to to log it, though I was puzzled that a relatively rare word replaced a more common one. Normally, it's the other way round. 

In short, dousing means smothering something, usually a fire, with water. Dowsing is searching for water by waving a stick about.

If you want to douse >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
apply to your local fire brigade.

If you want to dowse >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
then the British Society of Dowsers is the club for you. This is a group of people who think it needs a special talent to find water in the rain-soaked British Isles.

Slander vs Libel
If you're going to sue me for anything I write here, sue me for libel. Slander is spoken defamation; libel is written.

So, was the fulminating Calvin Harris wrong to tweet "Looking into taking action on @BBCNewsbeat for that libellous broadcast" (Guardian, 22 November 2012)? In theory, a defamatory broadcast should be slanderous because its statements are spoken, but the courts in various jurisdictions are happy to classify broadcast defamation as libel, presumably because broadcasting is seen as a kind of publication and can be heard by millions.

If you need a mnemonic, remember that 'libel' is the only* word in English that rhymes with 'Bible', a rather well-known written collection of history, folklore, philosophy and libels.

Laws vary around the world, but under English law libel has to be both untrue and defamatory, i.e. damaging to the reputation of the person mentioned.

*Except in New Zealand, where libel also rhymes with 'stable'.

Illicit vs Elicit 
You'd think this was better known, but even Press Gazette recently stated: "The newspaper also insisted there was nothing “elicit or underhand” about the way it obtained the photographs" (8 January 2013; it was later corrected).

They're near-synophones and both come from Latin, but they're unrelated. "Elicit" means to draw out. 'Illicit' is the opposite of "licit", meaning lawful. Despite the similarity, it has no link with 'solicitor' (an English lawyer who doesn't appear in court), which appropriately comes from solicitare, meaning to shake, harass or disturb.

'Illicit' can also be used for something that is actually legal but is frowned upon by society, especially if it involves pleasures that society is annoyed about missing out on.

I know, you knew all that. But it's good to have some more information so you can carry on the conversation after you've humiliated someone by pointing out their mistake.

Scold vs Scald
'Scolding' is a woefully under-used word for a telling-off, and seems unable to break away from being something done only by women to their husbands or children. Who said sexism in language was dead? Oh, hang on, it was me, wasn't it

'Scalding' is burning with hot water. Mnemonic-mongers will remember that 'scOld' is 'cOld'. Latin-speaking mnemonic-mongers will remember that 'scAld' is 'cAlidus' (Latin for hot). English holidaymakers in Europe often scald their hands because they don't expect hot water from a tap labelled C (the cold tap is marked F, as in fridge, which is not a coincidence). 

Thanks to Sarah Townsend (@STEcopywriting) for reminding me of that one.

Though vs Although
Nobody mistakes these two words, because they mean the same thing. There are probably style guides that insist on 'although' being the proper form and excoriate 'though' as a barbarous interloper. Me, I couldn't care less. However, as an editor I always change 'though' to 'although' so the speed reader, the tired reader, the reader in a dimly lit pub or the foreign reader won't confuse it with 'through'. 

There's much to be said for purity of style, but the best style is the one that makes it easiest for the reader.

Founder vs Flounder
Fail vs Flail
The problem with these two pairs is that the similarity in spelling is matched by a similarity in meaning, such that either one will make sense in the same sentence. People who are flailing are probably failing too, while an organisation that is floundering could be in the process of foundering. And a person who is floundering in water will probably be flailing, while foundering is the ultimate failing.
Fail is the opposite of succeed
To flail is to flap aimlessly, or to whip someone (the stringy bit of a whip is the flail)
To flounder is to flail in water
Foundering means taking on water and sinking, and is related to 'profound', meaning deep
The important distinction between founder and flounder is that the flounderer can recover. A ship only founders when the waters close over it.

It's scandalous that so many words have to carry the burden of two meanings when there are plenty of English-sounding words that don't actually exist. Words such as 'sharn', 'thring' and 'oblendificacious' would not only beautify the language but would also have won me that last game of Scrabble. It's a vast, unused resource of gorgeous syllables. Really, there's no excuse for such a poorly organised language.

Moral: If we're ever playing Scrabble together, don't forget that "JUXQOCK" is a perfectly valid word, meaning 'a person too timid to challenge an obviously made-up word on a triple-word score'.