Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Dispelling the myths of plain language

I admit I love grammar. In fact, it's the reason I do what I do. I'm a writer, copyeditor and aspiring author. But that doesn't mean I bask in the glow of my own glory. I'm fallible. I'm always seeking constructive criticism from my peers. And above all, I know I don't serve my own needs, I serve those of the reader. That's why plain language is so important. Let's embrace grammar not for its prescriptive elements but for the value it brings to language. What does plain language mean? I found an excellent resource on the Public Works and Government Services Canada linguistic databank website that gives a great explanation.

Here's what plain language isn't:

Myth 1: Plain language equals dull writing. Not true.
The plain in plain language doesn’t mean boring. It means clear and direct, as in the plain truth. The fact is, plain language is active, clear and more understandable than messages fraught with verbose and flowery style.

Myth 2: Plain language dilutes content. Many people fear that simple words and short sentences will dumb down a complex message. Not so. Plain language is the best and sometimes the only way to communicate complex ideas to a general audience.

Myth 3: Writers who use plain language risk insulting educated, literate readers. There's no need to dwell on this misconception. No one, regardless of their reading level, likes to wade through jargon and superfluous copy to extract meaning from a document.

What plain language is:

Plain language has everything to do with the reader. Documents written in plain language are specifically composed, drafted and edited  to meet the reader’s needs. Writers who are insecure and want to inflate themselves by producing official-sounding words and phrases are actually hiding behind the ambiguity of their craft. The end result is a message that doesn't resonate with the audience. Writers musk ask themselves, "Who are my readers," "What is their reading ability," "What do they need or want to know," "What do I want them to do after they read my message," and "What are the benefits to my reader?"  Answering those questions, then choosing appropriate structure, vocabulary and style, is the only way to write a message that suits its audience.

Plain language examples:

Don't write



for the purpose of



of a scientific nature



big, large

not often


in order to




has the ability to


For more information you can visit the putting it plainly site.

The humour in grammar - word crimes!

In our house, we have an understanding. Grammar forms the building blocks for cohesive conversation. Yes there was a time when my 16-year-old would roll his eyes, utter a sigh and give into whatever weighty lecture I might have the occasion to deliver after reviewing his English composition. And my husband would begrudgingly hand over his latest sermon for my review. They wanted my opinion but not the criticism that usually accompanied it. 
Now we approach grammar lessons with a different lens. We inject humour into our creatively crafted prose. We poke fun at common grammatical pitfalls and try to devise new and thoughtful ways to approach articulate expression. Why? Because it's not about the words, it's about how wonderfully they connect to produce beautifully written stories, inspiring historical accounts and rhetorical messages. Richly woven tales of adventure, characters so aptly personified or landscapes depicted with dazzling narratives serve to fuel our devotion. And when we want to have a little more fun, well there's always Weird Al.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Why good grammar matters

I read this post on LinkedIn by Donna McTavish who asks the question, "In a world where tweeting and texting is the norm, should we still care about grammar?" McTavish is the director of English for Business Limited. She offers her own thoughts about an article that was published in Harvard Business Review concerning a company's refusal to hire people who exhibited poor grammar skills. McTavish reviewed the HBR blog commentary that followed the article. Many people questioned the value of grammar if it wasn't necessary or relevant to their specific job function. In fact for many employers it isn't necessarily a problem if the average employee doesn't understand proper syntax, faulty parallelism, or subject-verb agreement. It's disappointing when they are complacent about their ignorance and are flagrant about it. The bottom line is grammar may indeed have far greater economic influence than we might surmise. Check out the full article here.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Mark Steyn & Ezra Levant on free speech - Part 1 of 5

Ezra Levant is a Canadian media personality, conservative political activist, journalist and best-selling author. He is the founder and former publisher of the Western Standard, is a lawyer, broadcaster and columnist for Sun Media and has written several books on politics and public policy. He has become known for his involvement in several legal controversies on free speech issues. Other issues that he has dealt with include multiculturalism, immigration, and economic deregulation. In this video he debates free speech with another well known political commentator, Mark Steyn. As two of my favourite authors and commentators, Levant and Steyn offer stimulating and articulate discussion.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

The dreaded dangling or misplaced modifer

Image courtesy of Don’t Dangle Your Participleby Vanita Oelschlager & Mike DeSantis, illustrator Vanita Books  5/01/2014  978-1-938164-02-6
I'm sure many of us have been guilty at one time or other of crafting a sentence that includes a dangling or misplaced modifier. Don't worry, it's not as scary as it sounds. In fact, it can often result in quite a hilarious, but unintended meaning.

You've probably seen many signs in your travels that have caused you to pause and reflect on what you've just read. You know what I mean. Examples abound and include road signs that caution us about heavy pedestrian traffic or if our dog poos in the park to put it in the litter bin. The dog or the poo? And are we talking about overweight pedestrians or a large volume of pedestrian traffic. 

Take a look at the sentence in the image above. It should read: 

While riding his skateboard in the park, Lester almost ran into a deer. 

The way the sentence is constructed, the writer incorrectly implies the deer was riding the skateboard.

Sometimes it appears as though principles of grammar are complicated and tricky to learn. If we take the approach of tackling one concept at a time with the goal of mastering the application of each rule as it relates to the art of writing, navigating the fundaments of grammar becomes less arduous.

Simply put, dangling or misplaced modifiers refer to the incorrect placement of modifying words and phrases. To avoid making this mistake, place your modifiers as close as possible to the word they're modifying. If you focus on the exact meaning of what you're trying to convey, it will be easier to spot inadvertently placed modifiers. Here are a couple of examples: 

Dangling:    To drive safely, a good set of brakes is required.

Correct:       To drive safely, you need a good set of brakes.

Misplaced:  Graeme watched the moon rise from his hammock.

Correct:        From his hammock, Graeme watched the moon rise.

Avoiding the word "should" in corporate communications

It's a debate among corporate communicators. Should we abandon the word "should" in our corporate copy? The mere inference of obligation casts an inflexible tone to our content that's not necessarily welcomed or appreciated by our audience. In fact, my employer rightly admonishes our use of the word. If we are looking to make a connection with the reader, we don't gain credibility by imposing our will. If the goal is to encourage audiences to accept our recommendations and buy our products, we are far more likely to succeed when we speak in a friendly, helpful manner. I was reminded of this by my supervisor who asked me to think about replacing should with "might consider."

It makes sense. I put myself in the reader's place. Do I want someone to implore me to take some required action? No, I'd rather be shown the options, how I might benefit or learn from the message, and possible suggestions for how I may improve my situation. I think I'm smart enough to make an educated decision. When a readers see the word "should" the predominant image they receive is that either they aren't doing what's right, or the writer by implication knows more than them. It turns out I'm not alone. Check out a similar post by Gwen Chynoweth, a vice president at a Minneapolis-based PR firm.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Corporate Speak – The Erosion of Eloquence Spells Disaster

Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something – Plato

“I will have to get buy-in from the assessment team on the performance metrics before we leverage a best practice so for now, let’s take this off-line.” If there ever was a non-statement, that’s it. Not only is the sentence full of senseless jargon, the mere utterance of those words portrays the speaker as a ridiculous nit-wit.

Too often business climbers seeking corporate glory and recognition attempt to elevate their position or detract others from realizing their ignorance through ill-contrived corporate buzzwords. Hoping a few strategically placed catch phrases will attract and retain the attention of their audience, speakers are abandoning substance for what they assume is acceptable style. The problem is we are getting accustomed to rhetorical messaging rife with grammatical errors and clichéd vocabulary.

At one time or another, we've probably all been guilty of latching on to some of these senseless buzzwords, but if we’re not careful, it will set the standard. Well for those of you who strive to preserve a higher standard in effective workplace communication, spread the word - it’s time for corporate jargon to buzz off.
Corporate speak often takes the form of buzzwords and catchphrases that aren’t truly understood by the author and make even less sense to intended audience. The trend toward inappropriate and meaningless language is serving only to impede effective communication. The following selection of colourful clichéd phrases has but one result. It attracts attention to the speaker rather than to the message itself, (if there even is one). Is it that we have to work harder to create a rapport with the audience, or is the average attention span waning? If both assertions are true, it appears that adopting corporate speak is a lazy way of communicating. It implies the English language is too complex or difficult to manage without condensing it into trite expressions. Here are some of the worst examples:

1.    “We need to think outside the box.”  Lose the box, just think.

2.    “We have a lot of room for organic growth.” When applied to
         inanimate or abstract entities, this sounds absurd.

3.     “We will impact our market share.” Give up on making this noun a
          verb. Learn the proper use of effect and affect.

4.      “We are leveraging our assets.” This is a other example of a noun
           trying to be used a verb. Consider using the word in the proper
           context by saying “We can use our assets to apply leverage.”

5.     “We will need employee buy-in.” Here is the notion of agreement
          from a subservient source. It’s a disingenuous expression that is
          contradictory. How is support generated from a participant who has
          no role in the decision-making? Avoid this phrase altogether.

Give mechanical corporate lingo the boot
Changing the way people speak means changing the way they think and that’s good for business. Corporate ideology can be by nature, quite mechanical. What is needed is a humanistic approach. Striving for clarity in workplace communication both internal and external, will improve the substance of key messages and ultimately raise credibility too. No one wants to admit they don’t understand the regurgitation of technical jargon and when it’s used to excess, the end result is a message without meaning or integrity. Corporate lingo is used to lend justification to principles about which the communicator isn’t sufficiently educated. The assumption is that to adopt such language implies a credibility not necessarily earned.

Making the case for meaningful vocabulary
Spouting rhetoric that uses terms like “key deliverables, cross-functional teams, and paradigm shifts” exemplifies lunacy not literacy. If the purpose of communication is to deliver one’s key message in the most clear, concise fashion, shouldn’t that be the primary goal? Why muddy the waters? If you’re sure you are impressing your audience, think again. Repetitive and senseless corporate jargon offends and annoys many people. If you want to truly engage your readers, start with language. Stop using the corporate “we” and speak simply to people.

Tips for more effective communication
It’s time to let the ship of verbose promotional rhetoric set sail. Staying afloat with your competitors or maintaining credibility with your staff are goals you can achieve without the buoyancy of inflated and meaningless expressions. Readers want to know you care about them. If you acknowledge their value through simple, clear and coherent conversation, not only will the message get across, it will strengthen your reputation. Do you really think readers are captivated by corporate lingo boasting “best-in-class” solutions or “ground-breaking innovations”? Those phrases don’t say anything concrete except to infer, it’s all about us not you.

RMR: Seven Day Forecast

This is a great parody on how we interpret the messages we receive from Environment Canada. Go ahead, have a chuckle. And for my American friends, I hope this doesn't reinforce the stereotypical impressions you have about Canadian weather.

“Be in no doubt: the beer was drunk but the man drank the beer.''

Choose your words wisely for they will make a tremendous difference in the meaning you convey. In his recent book, “Strictly English – The Correct Way to Write…and Why it Matters,” The Daily Mail's Simon Heffer criticizes what has come to be a sloppy way of speaking and writing. Some would say his opinions are stuffy, old-school, and don’t reflect the nuances of modern English. But if you are a stickler for maintaining strict rules of grammar and appreciate the subtleties of language, you may find the comments in Heffer's book insightful. 

He says part of the problem with the interference of the state in our lives, and the apparent ubiquity of its bureaucrats, is that many of us find ourselves using – or misusing – the jargon of officials in our everyday language. Think about his example of the word inquiry. What we really mean to say is that we are questioning or querying. The word “inquiry” actually refers to a formal investigation that’s typically conducted by a judge or senior official into some aspect of government activity or something for which the state has ultimate responsibility. Another word that people love to butcher is “decimate”.  The correct etymology of the word is the reduction of the strength of a body of people by 10 per cent. It does not mean more or less than that, though it is often used to describe the near elimination of a contingent, and has been wrongly used now for more than 100 years. The greatest absurdity of all is a statement such as “the workforce was decimated by 20 per cent,” followed closely by “the town was decimated completely." 

The debate about language is not without dissenting opinion and certainly isn't one for the complacent reader. To write effectively, is to engage with an audience through articulate and thoughtful expression. There's something gratifying about how eloquent text can spark our interest and compel us to revel in the mastery of the English language. If you're interested in a few excerpts from Simon Heffer's book or want to peruse some commentary, take a look at an article the Daily Mail posted earlier this month.

A plea to save grammar!

At the risk of offending those who resist the use of split infinitives, I'm going to commit the sin to ask an important question. Could it be our education system is failing to adequately equip students with basic grammar skills?  Has essential substance vacated the curricula necessary to ensure student literacy? Many educators, scholars and policy makers aren't mincing words – they say that’s entirely the problem. We teach students skills in physical education class so they can play sports; we teach them skills in music class so they can play instruments. But somehow, since the revolution of '66, skills have been seen as an enemy to writing. That's according to Paul Budra, an English professor at Simon Fraser University in B.C. who's making the case for teaching grammar. Today more than ever, students are entering college unprepared and severely lacking in basic literacy skills. Whether it's due to complacency on the part of the student, the educational system, or the move toward fractured views of language driven by technology, the future of effective communication is in peril.

I wonder if we've become a society obsessed with accommodation so much so that to exclude those with lesser skills from entering college appears to be insensitive? Some academics suggest the shift toward market-based logic in education combined with lowered standards, grade inflation, and remedial test formats contribute to inadequacies in literacy skill. Realizing that there exists increased pressure on institutions and instructors to manage time and resources, it will be a challenge to accomplish much in the way of reversing the literacy decline but endeavor they must. I know I am not alone in my belief that students need to be told why their writing is incorrect, and be shown how it can be corrected and improved. Two American professors present some provocative ideas about how we might improve students' writing skills. In their journal article, Michael Carter and Heather Harper suggest remedial testing, grade inflation, a decline in academic standards, class size, and technology are among some of the factors influencing the decline. What's the solution? We need to offer intensive undergraduate writing courses, adjust course requirements to mandate more reading and writing prerequisites, and revise grading rubrics to rank performance of student against student. I think it's a case worth pleading.