Category “Grammar”

“Suiting Up” Your Language

Monday, 29 July, 2013

Image of Edited GraffitiA video a friend recently sent me in which Stephen Fry decries “pedants” had me thinking about language. While I would not describe myself as a grammar Nazi (others apparently do 🙂 ), and as much as I delight in the deliciousness of language (particularly cuss words; yes, I know, a filthy habit), I do still think there is a time and a place for good grammar and professional writing skills.

I have definitely become aware of amusing or infuriating mistakes in the world around me more because it is part of my job (not to make them, of course, but to correct them). I have also become more aware of the decided decline in correctness. And then there’s the fact that I’m constantly torn between Canadian and British/South African spelling…. But most disturbingly, I have become more aware of how little people seem to care about the impression this all makes on others – particularly in a business context.

I was grabbing a coffee on my way to work today and I overheard the manager of the coffee shop interviewing a candidate. I couldn’t believe how many times the interviewee said “like” and “whatever”. Even for a coffee shop job (and perhaps even especially for a coffee shop job where you deal constantly with the public),  sounding professional is vital. The interviewee came across as very young and not particularly clever as she answered the manager’s questions. While I am sure the young lady is perfectly capable, she really didn’t seem it in her answers.

I do not mean to infer that this is only a problem with the young. And I do know that given my profession, I am perhaps more acutely aware than others, but I see this sort of informal/haphazard/unprofessional communication in both the written and the oral communication around me. Heck, even on the evening news… and even in the communications I receive at work (at BCIT and through my own business, as well as in other previous situations). When I was helping to find a candidate to replace me at my job at Wordtravels, for example, I was astounded at how terrible the spelling, grammar, and general writing skills of the applicants were – and this was for a writing and editing job!

I’ve read so many reports that say hiring managers will not call someone for an interview if they see even one spelling or grammatical error in a resume or cover letter. I’ve spoken to professionals who say they will not promote someone who doesn’t have excellent written and oral communication skills. And yet the more we use social media, texting, the tiny predictive text keyboards on smartphones, and even email as our primary tools of communication, the worse we seem to get.

I’m not sure what the cure is, but it’s vital to remember that just as people’s first impressions can come from what you look like, they can also come from what you sound like. And you always need to adapt your message to your audience and context. So while you’re putting on that business suit for your job or a job interview, don’t forget to “suit up” your language too.


Grammar Nuts – a Cartoon

Wednesday, 17 October, 2012

Cartoon about GrammarWhile I’m posting some great cartoons, I came across this one on Facebook. Unfortunately I don’t know the source, but it includes a link to The Plain Language Programme, so I’m going to assume that’s the original.


Five Tips for Better Business Writing

Saturday, 16 June, 2012

5 Tips for Better Business WritingEmail dominates our lives, often as much in a personal capacity as a business one. Unfortunately, sometimes the bad habits we’ve developed in our more informal correspondence creeps in to our business messages, and this can have disastrous consequences.

If you pay careful attention, however, you can avoid common gaffes when writing business emails:

1. Know Your Audience… But Do Something with that Knowledge

I came across a great quote by Pablo Picasso the other day: “Action is the foundational key to any success”… The number one rule to any business communication or business model is to know your audience. However, this knowledge is useless unless you actually do something with it.

As much as you can, use any possible information (or educated guesses you can make about your audience) to shape, organize, and influence your content. Choose language that your reader will understand, and explain any terms they may need to know but won’t be familiar with. Focus on relevant information only. Always think about how your reader will feel, and subsequently act, upon receiving your message.

And make sure that by the end of your message, you’ve  anticipated any possible questions or objections and included information to answer these before the reader has to respond and ask you, including anything that will help overcome their resistance easily.

2. Edit, Edit, and Edit Some More…

With the sheer volume of email, the kind of multitasking now needed in the business world, and the sort of technology-related short attention spans we now seem to have, people don’t have time to read long messages, nor are they likely to do more than skim even a medium-sized message. So once you’ve written your message, go back and slash it.

Cut out unnecessary information, keep sentences short and simple, reorganize paragraphs for the biggest impact, and place your main ideas at the beginning – at the message, the paragraph, and the sentence level. Get rid of those trite sounding “business” phrases. Get rid of “fillers” like “There are” or “I am writing to tell you” and remember that less is always more in this case.

3. Design an Easy-to-Read Message

Somehow, even though we know what we don’t like in a message, all of those things fly out the window when we write to other people. Nobody has time to spend wading through a long email with no sense of what’s important and what’s less important. White space, paragraphing, bullet points, and numbered lists are your friends, as are headings.

Headings in an email? Yes! Why wouldn’t you use any possible method you can to ensure your message is not only read, but understood, and then acted on? Use bullet points only for your most important information. Use a numbered list for a sequence that must be followed in order.

But don’t overuse themse You want the reader to have a visual sense of what is important, but don’t overwhelm them with so many lists that they can’t focus. If you use headings, ensure they are descriptive and relevant, and don’t use them in a very short email – it’ll just look weird.

Ensure your paragraphs are short and that your message is well spaced, with an easy-to-read font.

4. Proofread Your Document… And Evaluate Its Success

Nothing is more frustrating than trying to read a message that is riddled with grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors, or “text speak”. Ensure you’ve done a proper spellcheck, that you’ve read and re-read the message, and double-check that you’ve included any necessary attachments.

And then ask yourself a few questions:

  • Have I actually said what I mean?
  • Is my main idea clear?
  • Is the next step obvious for the reader?
  • Will I get the response I want?
  • Is my message easy to understand?

Before you hit send, ensure your message is professional, well-designed, and easy-to-read.

5. Follow Up on Your Message

Weeks go by and tThings slip down the ‘To Do’ list , with no response from your reader… Even the best thought out and written business messages can sit unread, purely because of a lack of time on the part of the audience.

If you are sending an urgent message, then you need to ensure you’ve given the reader a clear deadline for response. Don’t assume that just because someone has a smart phone or iPad that they are constantly checking their email. If you don’t hear from them, then you have to follow up. Also, don’t expect someone to respond within minutes or hours of sending your message – wait until a reasonable amount of time has passed before you check in with them.

And sometimes you just have to pick up the phone… Don’t use email as something to hid behind, use it as you would with any tool – carefully and only for its intended use.


Integrating Graphics: How to Visually Enhance your Documents

Wednesday, 8 June, 2011

It’s common knowledge that people respond or remember information far better when they view it in image rather than word form. We tend to glaze over when we have to look at a lot of text, so it makes sense to use reader access techniques to help the audience focus on your main ideas: using any eye-catching, visually relevant representation of information can help you quickly get your point across. However, this doesn’t mean you just shove a picture or a graph somewhere for fun; you need to think carefully about what type of image will work to enhance the information, as well as how to integrate it correctly into the text.

What kind of graphic should you choose?

There are so many different ways to illustrate information, but making careful choices around what kind of graphic you use ensures the audience will understand and retain your message.

Here are some tips and ideas to help you decide:

1. Complex data is best represented in a table, particularly when you are representing numbers or trying to make a clear comparison.

2. Photos and web page screen shots are best for literal representation of information and ideas. Photos can be used really effectively to shock, motivate, or challenge the audience.

3. Graphs and charts  come in multiple shapes and forms: bar graphs, line graphs, Gantt Charts, pie charts… Look at what type of information you want to represent and choose your image based on that information. Gantt Charts show project progress on a timeline, pie charts very easily show how chunks of a whole relate to each other, line graphs are great for illustrating progress and movement etc. Don’t forget a key for more complex graphics and keep text on a horizontal plane wherever possible.

How do you work images into your text?

It’s really important to refer to an image to enhance the text in your document and to allow the audience to understand the information quickly and easily. It is also vital to label and title the image correctly.

Here are nine guidelines to help you integrate graphics effectively:

1. Number tables and figures* separately.

2. Use clear, specific, descriptive titles for each – the audience shouldn’t have to refer to the text to understand the image.

3. Integrate graphics into the document by referring to them before they appear.

4. Place graphics at the end of the first paragraph they are referred to in.

5. For larger graphics (i.e. full page images), place the graphic on a separate page after the page it is mentioned on. Raw data or large schematics should rather appear as an appendix to the document.

6. Refer to the graphic  in one of two ways in your text:

e.g. 1. Foreign sales account for 85 percent of the firm’s revenue (Figure 3).

e.g. 2. As Figure 3 shows, foreign sales account for 85 percent of the firm’s revenue.

7. Place the caption or title of a table above the table, and the caption or title for a figure underneath the figure.

8. Precede each graphic’s title with“Figure” or “Fig.” or “Table”  followed by its number and then a period.

9. Always include a source below the graphic if you use data or reproduce a graphic from another source.

Selecting the right type of graphic for your purposes is not difficult, but it is something often overlooked or done sloppily. Help your audience focus on only the most relevant information through using effective, well chosen graphics. By integrating those graphics into your text, you can ensure that your message is clear, concise, and audience-focused, making sure it is understood and remembered.




*Every graphic that is NOT a table is referred to as a figure.

Three Key Tips for Business Writing

Wednesday, 6 April, 2011

Academic and creative writing are worlds apart from business writing. This does not mean you can’t be creative or intelligent when writing business messages. On the contrary, you need to be use the same kinds of skills of careful thought, research, proofreading etc. that academic writing requires, and you do need to think  and write creatively in order to focus your business writing.

If you can spend more time planning your business messages (whether a report, email, web pages, proposal, business presentation etc) and focusing on the following three tips for business writing, you will find that the process becomes easier, yields better results, and helps you project a positive image in the business world.

1. Keep it Objective Focused

In the workplace, there are certain tasks you need to achieve. When you communicate with clients, coworkers, employers, stakeholders etc, you are trying to achieve a specific objective. You may be trying to sell a product or service. You may be making a request. You may be replying to a message. No matter what the situation, you want to ensure that your communication not only delivers the message, but is understood, and produces the correct action and/or feedback.

Know what it is you want your audience to do. Write down “I want my reader/listener to…” and complete the sentence. If you don’t know what you are on about, they certainly won’t. Centre the message on this core idea. Emphasise the main idea throughout the message. Ensure that the follow up action is easy to understand and carry out. In this way, you succeed in the hidden agenda of business communication: protecting a positive image of you/your organisation and maintaining excellent customer relations.

2. Keep it Audience Focused

No where is it harder to write in an audience-centred way than in a job application letter. You are trying to tell them what you can do, so you fall into this resume repetition of “I can do this… I worked here… I studied that…”. People don’t care. What they want to know is what can you bring to them? What can you do (what are your “features”) and how will this benefit them? Always put yourself in the place of the audience.

If you know your product backwards, that doesn’t mean the audience will understand what you are on about, unless you “translate” the information into language that the audience will understand. You need to think about their level of knowledge and understanding and ask yourself

  • What do they already know?
  • What do they need to know?
  • How will they feel and react upon receiving the message?
  • How can you express your ideas in a way that will make them easy to understand?
  • Will they understand jargon?
  • What follow up action do they need to take?

If you have anticipated and answered all the audience’s questions before they have had to ask them, then you will be that much more successful in ensuring your message is received, understood, and acted upon.

3. Keep it Short and Simple (KISS)

The major difference between creative, academic and business writing is often length. Business writing needs to be concise, clear and focused because people deal with incredible volumes of data these days. People are also lazy and don’t like to spend time reading, especially if they inundated with emails. They also don’t want to sit through a rambling presentation.

Get to the main idea in your opening few sentences if you know the audience is neutral or positive about the material. Use crisp, precise words. Avoid unnecessary fillers (for example, my favourite is “I am writing to tell you…”. I know you are writing to tell me. I am reading what you have written). Minimise jargon if the audience won’t understand. Keep your tone friendly and conversational, but avoid slang and acronyms. Use short sentences and  short paragraphs. Order the information in a logical way. Group similar ideas together and include only the most relevant information.

Once you have  put your message together, edit and proofread  it. Cut out fillers, redundancies (e.g. revert back. Revert = to go back to), noun forms (e.g. “extend an invitation” can be replaced with “invite”) and long-winded explanations. Check for spelling and grammatical errors. You can still sound intelligent without having to use cliched business phrases (e.g. Thank you for your cooperation) or fancy words (remuneration = salary, so use salary).

Improving your business writing is not a challenging task; it simply takes a bit of careful thought and organisation. Focus on the audience, KISS, and what your reason for communicating is, and you’ll see positive results.




Five Rules for Correct Comma Use

Monday, 4 April, 2011

I often tell my international/ESL students that the difficulty about learning English is that so many of the rules don’t make sense logically, or there are a zillion exceptions to those rules. Also, most first language speakers don’t even know the rules, or how to use them correctly. However, if you make spelling or grammatical mistakes, you are instantly judged as someone who is incompetent/careless etc. and it undermines your credibility. This is especially relevant on the job hunt or when dealing with clients.

It also intrigues me how technology (including, and perhaps particularly, Smart Phones) has effected the English language and the level of carelessness involved with business communication. People type emails on their iPhones, riddled with mistakes, typos, spelling errors etc. I guess some people can be forgiven thinking that such things are acceptable, now that *shudder* LOL, OMG and FYI have been accepted by, and in, the Oxford English Dictionary.

As I seem to be on a grammar rant/kick at the moment (see my previous post on apostrophe use), I thought I’d add a post on correct comma usage. The danger, as with any punctuation, is that if you change a placement of a comma, or forget one somewhere, you can alter the meaning of your sentence.

The Five Rules for Comma Use

Rule 1. Use commas to separate three or more items in a series.

The easiest, most basic use of the comma is to separate a list of items, whether they are words, phrases, or clauses. For example, the previous sentence shows the separation between three words in a list. Although I remember being  told you can’t use a comma before ‘and’, you actually can (depending on the situation – see rule 2). It helps the reader understand your meaning, creates crisper sentences, and stops any confusion (see how easy to read the previous sentence is?).

Rule 2.Put a comma between independent clauses when they are joined by for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

If you have two complete sentences** (also called independent clauses) and you want to join them together to show a connection using what are rather fancily called co-ordinating conjunctions, then you must use a comma between them. An easy way to remember what these conjunctions are is the acronym/mnemonic device ‘FANBOYS’ – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.
For example: I like my job, but I prefer going on holiday.  OR   I missed the bus, so I have to run to class.
This is not to be confused with a sentence that has only one subject, but multiple verbs. In this case, if you see FANBOYS, you don’t need a comma.
For example: We loved the book but hated the movie.       There is one subject “we” and two verbs “loved” and “hated”. This is just one clause, so you don’t need a comma.

Rule 3.Put a comma after an introductory word, phrase, or clause that comes BEFORE an independent clause.

If you are introducing an idea or adding introductory information to a sentence,  you must put a comma after that introductory word, phrase, or clause. However, this is only necessary if the word/phrase/clause comes before an independent clause. As you can see, all the sentences in this paragraph follow this rule.
If the information comes after the independent clause, you don’t need to use a comma.
For example: You don’t need to use a comma if the information comes after the independent clause.

Rule 4.Use commas to separate any information (word, clause, phrase) that is NOT ESSENTIAL to the meaning/main idea of the sentence.

Compare these two sentences:
All applicants who used grammar correctly were hired immediately.
All  applicants, who used grammar correctly, were hired immediately.
Do you know the difference in meaning between the two? If I separate a word, phrase, or clause from the rest of the sentence using commas, it tells the reader that information is not  important to the sentence. Therefore, if you mentally delete the information separated by commas you get the correct meaning of the sentence.
So, sentence 1 means that only the applicants who used correct grammar were hired. The second sentence means that everyone who applied for the job was hired, whether or not they used correct grammar.

Rule 5.Use commas to separate coordinate adjectives, NOT cumulative adjectives.

Say WHAT? Yes, I doubt your average first language English speaker would even know that there are even different types of adjectives, but its true.
Coordinate adjectives are descriptive words whose order in the sentence can be changed around, or you could put ‘and’ between them, and this would not change the meaning of the sentence. You must put commas between these types of adjectives if you aren’t going to use ‘and’.
For example: The company was full of polite, intelligent employees. The company was full of intelligent, polite employees. The company was full of intelligent and polite employees.
The meaning of the sentence doesn’t change.
Cumulative adjectives are different. These rely on each other in a particular order to make sense, because each adjective builds on the next one i.e. they ‘accumulate’ meaning.
For example: The princess wore a pale blue chiffon dress.
You can’t say the princess work a chiffon and blue pale dress. The particular colour of blue is pale, the material the dress is made of (chiffon)  is pale blue, and the dress as a whole is made of pale blue chiffon.
Make sense? Good.
These are not hard rules to learn, nor are they hard to apply. All it takes is a bit of time, care, and proofreading.
**A complete sentence/independent clause (same thing) has a subject, a verb, and it expresses a complete idea that makes sense i.e. someone/something doing/being something.

The Correct Use of Apostrophes

Tuesday, 22 March, 2011

Over the years, as I’ve taught more and more grammar, I have become aware of how many incorrect uses of the very basics there are out there. What shocks me is that a lot of these errors are not only basic, but they occur in advertising, on product labels, in prominent places, and are propagated by people and companies that can afford to pay for professional copywriting.

The other day, I saw a Victoria’s Secret ad on TV that proclaimed (in text) that “There’s five ways…” (can’t remember the rest of the text). Now, there are three main rules to remember with apostrophe use:

1. Apostrophes are used to indicate possession/ownership of something. e.g. The boss’s signature (you can choose to leave out the second ‘s’ and just have The boss’ signature) or Victoria’s Secret (indicating it is the secret of Victoria).

2. They are also used to show contraction i.e. when you condense two words into one, for eases sake, the apostrophe replaces what is missing e.g can’t = can not; it’s = it is (compare to its – e.g. its appearance. This shows possession.)

3. They can never be used to indicate plurals. e.g. 100’s of people is incorrect. 100s of people is correct. Some people say you can use ‘s when you have a single letter word, e.g.” There are two m’s in accommodate”, but I prefer not to do this, and eliminate the apostrophe.

So back to the Victoria’s Secret ad… There’s five ways… = There is five ways…. which is grammatically incorrect. There ARE five ways is correct. Somehow, they seem to have confused contraction with possession, which to me is unforgivable if you are going to spend thousands of dollars on an ad campaign. I have also noticed countless times where apostrophes have been used (incorrectly) to show plurals. I can’t remember the exact wording, but I remember spotting a mistake on the label of a water bottle when I was in South Africa recently. Again, if you are going to spend money on labelling and marketing a product, get it right! And hire someone who knows what he or she is doing. Like Meerkat Communications 🙂


PS – For a humourous (but correct) take on the rules for apostrophe use, see my favourite online genius, The Oatmeal.

PPS – If you are going to comment on my spelling, for example, of humourous, remember, I am not American 🙂