March 18, 2013
January 24, 2013
I’m not here as much these days, partly because as a result of this blog I ended up getting a job writing and editing a monthly newsletter about… writing. It’s less ranty, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can read the current issue here, and there’s a sign-up form on the same page – it’s free.
I’ve also started another blogging project, which I’m really enjoying. It’s called Breakfast Matters. I’m meeting Brighton folk for breakfast, interviewing them, and then writing about it. Just normal people. If you’d like to come and have a look, I’d be delighted to have you.
January 23, 2013
My articles for Emphasis this month:
OK, okay, every self-respecting sub has to tackle this chestnut at some point. OK, ok, okay. How do you write OK?
The French government has added hashtag to its list of banned words. Sense or silliness? France bans the word ‘hashtag‘
November 28, 2012
These two pairs have long troubled me gently, and it came to a head last week when someone impertinently commented on Facebook (where, for reasons you need not worry about, I was talking about ‘commonly misspelt words’) ‘”Misspelt”?! “Misspelled”, please.’
To deal with spell first, here’s the thing. The Guardian style guide specifies spelled for the past tense and spelt for the past participle, The Times prefers spelt in both instances, The Economist says spelled is American English and spelt is British English and healthfood shops tell us spelt is a more primitive form of wheat. Then there’s the OED, which says both are fine but lists spelled first, and Collins, which agrees but lists spelt first.
Is learn any simpler? Nope. Now, my first chief sub told me to spell it learnt, so as not to confuse it with the adjective learned, as in ‘he’s a learned man’. The Guardian style guide, however, says not to write learnt ‘unless you are writing old-fashioned poetry’. The Economist says learnt is British English and learned is American English and The Times prefers learnt in both instances. Collins and the OED agree that either spelling is fine, and both list learned first.
Fowler, in a rare show of tolerance, acknowledges both learned and learnt, spelled and spelt, though he notes that the -t endings are more common in British English, and that learned is more common as the past form.
Right then. That’s as clear as mud. So, what do people actually do? I asked the question on Twitter, and discovered that they do all kinds of things. There was a slight preference for -t endings (most of my followers are British, so that makes sense), a lot of confusion and a few preferences, but none of the usual tubthumping. Basically, we’re all a bit unsure.
Do I have an answer? Not really, beyond that if someone starts throwing ‘?!’ combinations at you on Facebook, you’re well within your rights to tell them to bugger orf.
As a general rule, it seems that -t endings are a trait peculiar to the British, and as such have some connotations of old-fashionedness. If you’re writing for an international audience, you may wish to switch to -ed, but otherwise, as you were. Pick your preference and defend it to the death, or at least until someone comes up with a sensible argument for changing it.
What’s your preference?
This just in from my colleague Kathy:
I found the thing wot I was talking about yesterday: the -t endings that have now fallen away include: curst (as in that fine Brighton band, The Curst Sons), dropt, husht, kist, stopt and whipt. The ones where the -t ending is now the only formation include: crept, dealt, felt, kept, left, meant, slept, swept. And those that have preserved both alternatives include: bereave, burnt, dream, kneel, lean, learn, smell, spell, spill and spoil. Because I know you won’t have been able to sleep.
November 2, 2012
A while ago I wrote about reduplicative ideophones in Japanese, such as fula fula for being unable to walk straight while drunk, or giri giri for being just in time. The post is here, if you’re interested.
I don’t know squat about the linguistics of other languages, so I have no idea how many use this device. But I was delighted today to read on Simon Fenton’s blog Travels with my shirt that the Diola (or Jola) language of Senegal has something similar. They’re different in that they don’t describe the sensory experience of a feeling, but instead take a noun or verb and double it to make an adjective or show a current action.
Here’s the extract:
The diola word for hot is “boily boily”. Many adjectives seem to be two repeated words – gileng gileng is cold, libby libby is heavy, leggy leggy is to go (ok, that’s a verb and it’s also Wolof, a different language). Year ago I could speak basic Indonesian after four months strolling around there – it was quite simple grammatically and I always remember if you are actually doing the verb in question, you repeat it. For example Jalan was to walk, so if you’re walking you are “jalan jalan”. I think I’m remembering that correctly, but I know I have readers in the Indonesian Archipelego, so will no doubt find out.
I wonder how many other languages also use them. I think they’re great.
November 1, 2012
A SPECIAL RING OF HELL IS RESERVED FOR THEM!
Ahem, sorry about that. I mean, it’s probably true, but that’s not actually what I want to write about.
A colleague turned to me today, sucking his teeth and generally looking a bit dramatic in that understated sub-editor way. He pointed at his screen. In the sub-head, ‘marketers’. In the body copy, ‘marketeers’. What devilry.
“I hate that word,” he hissed, deleting one e.
And then, like Carrie Bradshaw, I got to thinking. Marketeer has slightly negative connotations in my mind, possibly having been tainted by profiteer or black marketeer. For me, it conjures up images of someone who markets products recklessly and without conscience, whereas marketer just describes someone who markets stuff. However, it’s entirely possible that I made this up, because I do that sometimes.
As Dictionary.com says, the -eer suffix is “now frequently perjorative”. But does that include marketeer?
Perhaps not. I looked it up in several places, and couldn’t find any evidence of a negative nuance. There is, however, a specific meaning to marketeer, relating to support for EU membership.
- (British) a supporter of the European Union and of Britain’s membership of it
- a marketer
a person employed in marketing
- a person who sells goods or services in a market: software marketeers
- [with modifier] a person who works in or advocates a particular type of market: in the US libertarians are free marketeers to the bone
(only listed as a derivative of market)
There also seems to be a particular stress on marketeers operating within a market, whereas marketers, perhaps, can just market in any old way. This does seem a rather obscure differentiation, though.
What do you think? Do you see them as equal in meaning? Do you read a negative nuance into one? Are the French involved (they usually are)? Is it a UK/US thang?
If I’m not alone in seeing marketeer in a negative light, it strikes me that it would be a useful thing for those who use it as their job title to be aware of. It can’t help with the marketeering.
September 6, 2012
I know, I know, exciting or what? But try to contain yourselves, do. You can read all about it here: Data: singular or plural?
I’ve also knocked up a quick quiz on homonyms and other little word monkeys. It’s here: 60-second quiz.
July 5, 2012
Interestingly, I’ve written a post for Emphasis business writing trainers, called Interrogate your adverbs. Basically, it’s a round-up of five words that make me want to literally put my hands on my hips and declare “OH REALLY?” Obviously, you’re welcome to leave comments. Unless they’re significantly rude, actually.
June 12, 2012
This is a bit of a quick lunchtime rant, so I apologise if it lacks finesse (it does).
I just phoned a PR chap. It was the second time we’d spoken, ever. I won’t go into why, but suffice to say that some requests he’s made over the past week have doubled the workload involved in a particular task, and it’s been passed to me to sort out. The phonecall today was to make sure he was on track for the deadline I set yesterday. In short, he’s on the back foot, I’ve been efficient and more than decent, and now we need to wrap it up.
But then he did a thing.
It went a bit like this:
Me: “Hi, it’s Cathy, we spoke yesterday.”
Him: “Oh hi, yes, thanks for sending that through, I’m going to look through it at lunchtime and get it back to you early afternoon.”
Me: “Super. Because I’m working elsewhere for the rest of the week, so I do need to see it off today.”
Him: “Yep, definitely.”
[So up until now, I'm in charge.]
Me: “Great, speak to you later.”
Him: “Thanks honey.” [phone down]
And with those two magical words, he’s put himself back in charge.
Thanks honey? Sorry, did I just bake you a FUCKING MUFFIN? Do you know me? Did I pick you up a pint of milk, or compliment your hair? I did not. I phoned you to remind you that I need you to do a certain thing, by a certain time.
But the thing that amazed me was the incredible potency of those two small words. By sneaking them in just before the phone hit the cradle, he changed the power balance of the whole conversation. Ending on a “thanks honey” transformed both our roles: with the “thanks”, he implies that I’ve just done something he asked me to do, and with the “honey”, he makes it personal and affectionate. Suddenly, I’m doing him some kind of menial personal favour and he’s letting me. In fact, he’s patronising me.
I’ve heard other people, particularly women, complaining about endearments before. I understand that they can be annoying, but they’ve not bothered me personally. If the greengrocer calls me “luv”, no problem. If a love interest calls me something sweet, I might even like it. And my friends and I call one another all kinds of sickly things. In a professional context, however, it’s clearly inappropriate.
But until half an hour ago, I’d never realised how much you could elevate your position, albeit temporarily and cosmetically, with just one or two strategically placed words.
On a completely unrelated subject, I’m really looking forward to receiving that copy.
This post, which I dashed off in all of 10 minutes, has attracted more attention than any of the ones I’ve spent hours poring over, and now I wish I’d put a little more consideration into writing it.
As seems to happen whenever anyone mentions the gender word (and I didn’t even, look!), I’ve had quite a few “calm down dear” responses. Also, my having mentioned a greengrocer has earned me suggestions of class snobbery.
So, three things that I perhaps should have included or done differently:
- Shockingly, this was not the first time I have ever been addressed as “honey”, “luv”, “babes” etc. It is, however, the first time I’ve written about it. To those who feel I took unnecessary offence, when in fact the poor man concerned was just being friendly, or perhaps confusing me with his lovely wife, you’ll just have to trust me on this one. Or not, as you wish. The conversation was nothing if not a power struggle – an editor and a PR manager thrashing out how a document should look, each with their own agenda? Come on. To slip that “thanks honey” in so smoothly half a second before I hung up was genius, and we both knew it.
- As for class snobbery, I was probably unwise to write “greengrocer” there. If, like Cher, I could turn back time, maybe I’d replace that bit with “if a person, regardless of job title, gender or indeed colour, in an informal situation that involves no conflict or power struggle, calls me ‘luv’, no problem”. Okay? It was an example, hunnies. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to charge some proles down with my horse, before they steal all the potatoes again.
- If you’re someone who already calls me honey, you can keep calling me honey. I’m not going home and sticking pins in an effigy of you, don’t worry.
May 28, 2012
When you espresso-drinking types decide to grace our inboxes with a spot of direct marketing, your main goals are to pick up new clients and stimulate repeat business. Even if you don’t achieve that, hopefully you’ll still increase awareness of your brand. If your message is binned without being read, that’s disappointing. If your recipient opts out, that’s the worst‐case scenario. Right?
Or how about when the targeted customer, upon reading your carefully crafted prose, froths violently at the mouth and forwards your email to, um, me, with the following comment:
“Why you would trust anyone to work with you on direct mail when their own attempt at email direct marketing is so shabby is beyond me. It’s the mix of fonts, colours, bold; the length, lack of salutation or sign off, not to mention poor sentence construction and punctuation, that make me go grrrr.”
That’s how this little treat fell into my hands. And, would you believe it, the point of the direct-marketing email in question was to market… direct mail. Ouch. A double whammy of self defeat. To see the email in all its glory, click here. I’ve removed the company’s name and links, because I’m not a total bitch, honest.
In the interests of positivity (which is definitely a word, because the Spice Girls said so) here are five points that could have made it better:
1. Length and structure
This email is well over 1,000 words long – that’s at least three times as long as it should be. Try to limit yourself to a maximum of 300 words, and use a three‐point structure so that you don’t overwhelm your reader’s tiny mind. For example:
- Outline the client’s possible desire or difficulty
- Describe your company’s solution
- Provide the next step, whether it’s a link, phone number or email address.
2. Style and layout
Make sure the email contains clear branding – your logo, your font, your colours. This one was so generic‐looking that at first I thought it might be a scam, and had to confirm with the company that it was genuine.
When it comes to the text, don’t mix colour, underline and bold (unless you want it look like a GCSE computer skills project from the 1990s). Choose between either colour or bold, and use it sparingly – and if you choose colour, make sure it fits with your branding and that it matches, or complements, the colour of any hyperlinks. Underline is so last century, baby; don’t do it. Also, do you really need to use block capitals? I THINK NOT.
3. Spelling and grammar
Where to start? The mistakes in this piece smack you in the face like a sack full of hammers. But here are a few of the less idiotic ones.
- Don’t refer to your company as a female, for flip’s sake. Most style guides suggest the singular (“Relfco and its partners”), but some companies prefer the plural (“Relfco and their partners”) because they think it sounds more human. Either is fine, just make sure you’re consistent.
- Remember that spellcheck is a little bastard. Only a human would know that you meant “whereas” in the sentence: “ROI for Direct Mail has steadily increased over the last 3 years, were as digitals has declined.”
- Read it out loud. That way you’ll spot the awkwardness of sentences such as: “We will do all of the or part of, the work for you” – and either annihilate them on sight (recommended), or at least improve the punctuation.
- Consider employing a professional proofreader, or at least running the document past the most pedantic person you have to hand. Not everyone will spot a misplaced modifier, but if you’re sending the email to several thousand people, some definitely will. Here’s one, where the “its” and the “we” disagree: “In its simplest form, we work in partnership with local marketing experts.” Not the end of the world, but some people judge you on this stuff. Some people, eh. No-one I know, obviously.
- “Mail is engaging. Consumers spend on average 10 minutes reading mailshots.” Per item? (Sounds unlikely.) In a lifetime? (Not very impressive.)
- “It lets you have a one to one communication which delivers more emotional intensity than any other medium.” Is anyone really going to believe that receiving marketing mail is an emotionally intense experience? Delete.
- “[Mail] affects all five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Mail is the only medium to provide the creative possibilities to engage the customers on all levels.” Yes, I often sniff, lick and listen to my letters before opening them. But enough about me.
How you start and finish matters. If you’re contacting an existing client, you want them to feel valued and remembered. If you’re contacting a potential new client, remember that you’re nothing to them, as yet. And in both cases, bear in mind that unsolicited mail is rarely welcome – so you need to be as polite, professional and to-the-frickin-point as possible.
Use a program that allows you to address each recipient by name, and check that their name displays correctly. Most people are more likely to read on if they see “Dear Cathy” than if they see “Dear Ms C Relf”. Though it really is time you stopped reading my mail.
Also, make sure you sign off properly. You’re reaching out to new business – so to whom should it reach back? And how? Be friendly, write like a real person, and give options for how to get in touch. Finally, think carefully about your final statement. Do you really want it to be “In the mean time for more ideas, fact & fingers click on Direct Mail”?