Former teacher schools Trump on grammar, communication and power

I have a new hero. Her name is Yvonne Mason and she’s a retired English teacher from Atlanta, Georgia. A few days ago, she received a letter from President Trump in response to a letter she wrote to him about the recent school shooting in Florida.

Most people would be happy to receive a letter from the president, even one as divisive as Trump. And so was she until she read it. Old habits die hard and it wasn’t long before she got out her old purple pen and a yellow highlighter, and started marking it as if it had been submitted by one of her pupils.

You may not be surprised to learn that Trump didn’t do very well. The letter was soon covered in yellow lines and purple scrawls. “Have y’all tried grammar style check?” she scribbled at the top.

Clearly, the White House hadn’t. Mason’s biggest gripe was the apparently random use of capital letters, one that plagues my life when I edit my clients’ writing.

After highlighting the incorrect capitalisation of ‘Federal’ (twice), ‘State’ (three times) and ‘President’ once, she could take no more by the time she reached the fourth ‘Nation’. “OMG this is WRONG!” she exclaimed.

In my experience, lawyers are the worst. Common examples include ‘Client’, ‘Lawyer’, ‘Business’ and ‘Judge’. As Mason would no doubt be at pains to point out, these are not proper nouns and should not have capitals.

You may think this is unnecessarily pedantic. After all, in the age of instant messaging and abbreviated social media posts, who cares?

Mason says that her constant message to her students was: “Language is the currency of power.” The words you choose and your mastery of the English language all convey something about you, whoever you are, president or janitor.

It’s a point the Washington Post picked up in an article in March about the endless small mistakes that have dogged Trump’s presidency. These, the newspaper says, “have become symbolic of the larger problems with Trump’s management style, in particular, his lack of attention to detail and the carelessness with which he makes policy decisions".

Mason sent the letter back to the White House with a link to https://plainlanguage.gov/, a US government website whose purpose is to “make it easier for the public to read, understand, and use government communications”.

President Trump may not agree but Mason’s message could not have been clearer. “If you can’t communicate what you want or what you need … you’re not going to get what you want,” Mason said. “Writing clearly and consistently gives you power.”



Why you need to cut out the jargon and corporate gibberish


Why you need to cut out the jargon and corporate gibberish

I’m starting the year with a plea to lovers of clichés, jargon and corporate gibberish. Punch the puppy, now.

I saw a brilliant example of jargon a couple of weeks ago. It was in an advert for a head of change at the BBC that seemed to come straight out of the BBC satire W1A. Talk about life imitating art.

One task for the prospective employee was to “Oversee and gain senior stakeholder buy-in for the design and planning of the required change management interventions required to successfully embed the change.”

There was plenty more of this sort of twaddle. One requirement was to “engage senior stakeholders to understand change impacts”. Another was to act as a role model for “good practice change management competences and behaviours”.

The so-called father of advertising, David Ogilvy, was well known for his hatred of jargon. “Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon,” he said. He was talking about advertising but could just as easily been referring to any other industry.

Jargon has infected our language. And, according to research last year by Londonoffices.com, it is driving people nuts. Included in the list of phrases that infuriate co-workers and clients are “blue-sky thinking”, “idea shower” and “singing from the same hymn-sheet”. Thankfully, the American desire to “punch the puppy” has yet to cross the Atlantic. (Apparently, it means to do something inexcusable that is good for business.)

One office worker surveyed by Londonoffices.com said: “I overhear colleagues using some of these phrases because they think it makes them sound clever and important, but mostly they haven’t got a clue what they’re on about.”

Worse even than irritating clichés is corporate gibberish. How about the opening of this letter from Philips Lighting to a customer: “Dear Neil, did you know that technologies and standards are evolving rapidly in the dynamic smart city environment?”

The Plain English Campaign hands out Golden Bull Awards for the worst examples of English each year. In the Article and Blog Writing for Lawyers training course I run, I quote this previous award winner.

“A unique factor of the NHS Cheshire Warrington and Wirral Commissioning support organisation is its systematised methodology for project and programme management of small, medium, large service re-design and implementation…Building in equality and risk impact assessments the options are taken through a process to arrive at the content for an output based specification and benefits foreseen as a result of the implementation.”

This always raises a snigger from lawyers. They soon stop laughing when I point out that much of their own writing is equally impenetrable. Such as this legal humdinger: “The revocation by these Regulations of a saving on the previous revocation of a provision does not affect the operation of the saving in so far as it is not specifically reproduced in these Regulations but remains capable of having effect.”

So, here’s a ‘no-brainer’ for 2018 that doesn’t need an ‘idea shower’. ‘Kick the jargon into the long grass’, ‘circle back’ and you are guaranteed a ‘results-driven’ ‘quick win’. Whatever you do though, please don’t punch that poor puppy.

Happy 2018.

Oxford comma plays dramatic role in $10m lawsuit


Oxford comma plays dramatic role in $10m lawsuit

At last, a legal case I can get excited about. That hasn't happened since the OJ Simpson trial more than 20 years ago but the decision in this one is even more sensational. A recent court case in Maine turned on something far more dramatic than a bloody glove: a comma. Or, to be pedantic, and if nothing else this blog is about pedantry, the lack of a comma.

I warned you it was exciting. Before we get down to the details though you need to know that this comma (or lack of a comma) wasn't any old comma. It was the mighty Oxford comma, the much-maligned Richard III of the grammar world (and not because it’s a funny shape).

What’s an Oxford comma, you ask? I’ll get to that but first you need a bit of background.

The case was brought in Maine by a group of drivers against their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for overtime pay. The company argued that no overtime was due because Maine state law says overtime does not apply to certain activities. Specifically, it excludes "the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of" perishable goods.

This is the bit where you need to concentrate. The case hinged on the last words, "packing for shipment or distribution". The court had to determine if these were two separate activities – "packing for shipping" and "distribution" – or one activity, "packing for shipping or distribution".

The drivers argued the latter and that they were entitled to overtime pay for work that involved "distribution" on the basis that this wasn't an excluded activity. The court agreed (in a 29-page judgement), and 75 drivers have been awarded a share in $10m worth of unpaid overtime.

Now back to the Oxford comma (sometimes called the serial comma). It is a comma used to separate the last item in a list of three or more items in order to avoid ambiguity. It’s an optional comma, though, and its use depends on the context.

In the sentence, "I like cricket, cycling and long walks in the country" you wouldn't use a comma after the word "cycling" as it is unnecessary.

But, there's a world of difference between saying "I want to thank my parents, Justin Bieber, and Helen Mirren" and, "I want to thank my parents, Justin Bieber and Helen Mirren”. The latter sentence, without the Oxford comma, implies that the parents are Justin Bieber and Helen Mirren. Unlikely.

Despite this, some people argue that the Oxford comma is an unnecessary affectation – like James Bond and his shaken, not stirred, martinis.

This argument arouses great passion. American rock band Vampire Weekend released a single called Oxford Comma in 2008, the opening line of which asked: "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?"

Clearly, many people do. There was a furore six years ago when it was reported that Oxford University had committed grammatical infanticide by dropping the Oxford comma from its style guide. This had the grammar stormtroopers goosestepping all the way to the letters pages of the Times and the Telegraph, although it turned out the reports were erroneous. (The Oxford comma had only been banned by Oxford University for press releases and internal memos.)

In the Maine drivers’ case, an Oxford comma after the word "shipment" would have made it clear that the distribution of perishable foods was excluded from overtime. Whoever wrote the clause should have taken heed of the grammar bible The Elements of Style by Struck and White, (the Lennon and McCartney of grammar, or would be if they had had more than one hit).

Despite its catchy title, The Elements of Style isn't much of a read but it is clear about where it stands on the Oxford comma: "In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Thus … 'red, white, and blue'." 

"That comma would have sunk our ship," said David G. Webbert, the lawyer who represented the drivers. As it was, there was enough uncertainty for the decision to go in his client’s favour.

So what next for the Oxford comma? Who knows, but this decision will have reverberated through the pages of grammar textbooks around the world. I can only imagine the semicolon is seething. Twice the ink of an Oxford comma yet no one ever mentions it except to say they have no idea what it does.

If the OJ trial is anything to go by, in 20 years time we’ll all be glued to the latest Netflix mini-series, Oxford Comma, hopefully starring Justin Bieber and Helen Mirren. I, for one, can’t wait.   

6 Editing Tips That Will Boost Your Writing

“Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorised every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity...edit one more time.” 

Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 endings to his classic A Farewell To Arms before he was happy with itThe reason he gave for coming up with so many versions: “Getting the words right.” 

So, if you’re struggling to write a blog or copy for your website you are in company. Even the best don’t get it right first time. 

Writing is difficult and it’s easy to get disheartened when the words aren’t flowing across your screen. I like this quote from American writer Cheryl Stayed: “I write to find what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right.”

Thinking like this takes the pressure off. Just get words on the page, you can tidy them up later. That tidying up is the key to good writing but how do you go about it? 

Here are 6 editing tips to boost your writing. I’ll come up with more in the next few weeks. 

  1. Read what you have written out loud. It’s best if you have an audience for this but even on your own it’s worthwhile (however much it makes you feel like the nutter on the bus). You’ll notice things you’d failed to pick up on a read through such as missing or duplicated words, long sentences that leave you out of breath, and sentences that sound plain wrong. Most of all you will get a sense of the rhythm and tone of what you have written. If it sounds stilted, it will read badly too. Time spent reading your work aloud is rarely wasted.
  2. Use a good grammar book. I know this suggestion opens me up to ridicule as a grammar Nazi (in fact double ridicule as my poor grammar makes me prone to make mistakes) but I’m with French philosopher Michel de Montaigne on this one: “The greater part of the world's troubles are due to questions of grammar." The ‘bible’ is The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, which has been in    print since 1918. If this is too old fashioned for your taste there are several modern grammar books around that manage to take a lighthearted approach to what is, let’s face it, a rather dry subject. These include My Grammar and I (or Should That Be Me?) by Caroline Taggart and J.A. Wines and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Or should that be Lynne Truss’ Eats Shoot and Leaves?
  3. Cut your sentences in half. Not all of them obviously but most people seem to have a morbid fear of full stops. Get over it. One idea per sentence. Full stop. New sentence. Full stop.
  4. Use simple words. Hemingway was a great one for this. Criticized by William Faulkner for never being known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary he replied: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Simple words make your writing easier to read. That’s the number one prerequisite. Sorry. That’s the number one rule.
  5. Remove redundant words. ‘Absolutely’ essential, ‘advance’ planning, ‘completely’ destroyed, ‘final’ ultimatum. These are hard to pick up when you are writing but easy to look out for when you read through your work.
  6. Cut out “just’, “really” and “very”. It’s really amazing but when you just cut them out you very rarely, in fact never, notice they were there. Delete them and your writing is cleaner.

Happy writing, but more importantly, happy editing.