Little mistakes, big consequences. And how to avoid them…
[Image courtesy of Ricardo Carreon at Flickr Creative Commons]
Just the other day, somebody said to me, ‘What exactly are you inferring?’ when I suggested that he might not be taking the best decision.
It stopped me dead in my tracks.
Why? Because I wasn’t inferring anything – he was. I was implying, but to explain the difference would have been to add insult to injury. So I bit my tongue, adopted my best diplomatic tone and smoothed ruffled feathers.
Every so often, it pays to get back to basics, and look at the little things that matter. In this case grammar, vocabulary and spelling, which can send out signals about other things. We all like to think that we can see beyond a simple mistake, and that it doesn’t really matter in this day and age.
What’s more, we’ve been told so often over the last few decades that we shouldn’t make value judgements about the way people speak or write that we think the same goes for us and our business.
But just because you cut other people slack when they make mistakes doesn’t mean that they’ll return the favour.
And if somebody picks up on a clanger you’ve committed in print or on the web, it might just go viral if it’s funny or embarrassing enough, so you’re receiving attention for all the wrong reasons. Or worse, a potential client might just think that sloppy writing means sloppy service.
Way back in 2008, I wrote two posts about easily confused words. Years on, the confusion continues, with not just those words by many others. So I thought I’d return to the topic, and disentangle a few other common ones.
- complementary / complimentary
These two words are easy to mix up, as they’re very similar, and actually have a common Latin origin (don’t worry – we’re not going to go there). But it’s important to get them right.
Complement is to do with making something complete. So we talk about a ship’s complement (the full number of sailors) or say that white wine is the perfect complement to fish.
The adjective complementary follows through on that sense, as you see in complementary medicine – alternative therapies that work with and extend traditional medicine.
Compliment, on other hand, is to do with praise (we receive many compliments from our clients). Complimentary means flattering or full of praise, or – and this is where lots of confusion occurs – free/given as a gesture (a complimentary weekend for two).
- lie / lay
There’s no easy way around this one, so if in doubt, check it out. The confusion arises because there are three linked, but separate, verbs: lie, lie (no, that’s not a mistake) and lay. And the past tense simply piles confusion on top of confusion, so let’s take a step back.
Lie (1) means not to tell the truth. So I lie today, and I lied yesterday (a hypothetical example, you understand, as I’m the most truthful person you could ever hope to meet).
Lie (2) means to be in a horizontal position. So I lie on the bed and go to sleep every night. But last night, I lay on the bed, because that’s the past tense. Still with me? Don’t worry, just one more to come.
Lay means to set something down. So you can lay down the rules, or lay the table. If you did that yesterday, you laid down the rules, or laid the table.
- forego / forgo
I recently read a story about a CEO who was intending to forego his bonus, as the company results were so dismal. What struck me, though, was not the magnanimity of the gesture so much as the mistake in the headline.
The verb forego simply means to go before or to precede. You hardly ever see it used in this form, though. Far more common are foregoing (the foregoing conditions apply to all suppliers) and foregone (as in foregone conclusion).
Forgo means to do without something – which is what our chief exec was doing, when he decided not to take the money and run. Since forego is rarely if every used, this is an easy one to get right: in almost all cases, it’s forgo.
- hone/ home
This one is very common, though it’s easily avoided. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people talking about honing in on things, from USPs to key messages, from target markets to customer needs.
In its literal sense, hone means to sharpen something – usually a knife. By extension, you can sharpen your skills or even your body.
When you’re zeroing in on something, you need to use home, usually followed by in and on. Whenever I have a moment of doubt (they do happen) I think of a homing pigeon flying straight back to to its coop. It’s homing in on that point. By definition, honing must mean something else. A simple but effective way to remember.
- podium / lectern
And finally, here’s one for your inner pedant. It’s also controversial, as (a) American usage differs from British and (b) usage is fluid, even on this side of the Pond – but here goes anyway.
A podium is something you stand on, not at. If you cast your mind back to your Latin and Greek (just kidding) you’ll know that its root comes from foot (but seriously: think pedal, pedestrian, podiatrist etc.). So it’s a stage or a platform.
A lectern, on the other hand, is a tall narrow stand on which you put your notes/speech for a presentation. Again, the root is Latin, and comes from the verb to read. But as I said, this one is changing. Still, it’ll impress your friends at dinner parties.
Misuse of these or any other words doesn’t constitute a cardinal sin in the world of marketing. People will know what you mean, even if you don’t say what you mean. But they may just, at some subliminal level, think a little bit less of you for making the mistake.
And the very last thing you want them to do is infer bad service from bad writing.
Just think of the implications.
Why simple doesn’t mean bland. And why complicated might just lose you the sale.
[Image courtesy of Pete O’Shea at Flickr Creative Commons]
I recently had an interesting conversation with a fellow writer about whether plain English means bland English. He had very strong views on the matter, saying that plain meant boring – which killed creativity.
I was not entirely convinced. For maybe plain (with negative overtones) is just another word for clear (with positive ones). And when it comes to copywriting, clearer is always better.
The starting point for the debate was the Plain English Campaign, an organisation that’s been ‘campaigning for crystal-clear English since 1979’. They serve up brickbats and bouquets (if that’s not too clichéd a term) ever year to both state and private-sector organisations based on the quality of their written output.
Their website, as you can imagine, is a fascinating read. And if you’re a fan of telling it like it is, and a hater of the hackneyed, you’ll love it. It’s a grammar geek’s sweet shop, full of unexpected pleasures and new discoveries.
Their PDF guide has some common-sense tips that every writer should take on board:
- Keep your sentences short
- Prefer active verbs
- Use ‘you’ and ‘we’
- Use words that are appropriate for the reader
- Don’t be afraid to give instructions
- Avoid nominalisations
- Use lists where appropriate
In fact, most of those things I’ve advocated over the years on this blog (well, all except the one about nominalisations: turning a verb such as complete into a noun – completion).
Their suggestions for alternative everyday words (change instead of adjustment, allowed instead of admissible, total instead of aggregate) seem to chime with the first law of copywriting: write how you speak.
They also say that plain English is not about ‘the cat sat on the mat’ school of writing, or about banning words.
Just as well.
Style and substance
So what is it about? Well at its simplest, it’s about writing copy that people will read. About connecting with your audience in a language that they can understand and relate to.
Which brings us back to the the discussion – or heated debate – I had about whether plain English cramps style and kills creativity. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a bit of a non-issue.
For creativity is not about using long words and convoluted expressions. It’s about a lightness of touch and a lack of self-importance. About doing more with less, and creating an impression rather than labouring every brush-stroke. It’s as much about the gaps between the words as the words themselves.
And it’s about originality, which doesn’t need polysyllables.
All you have to do is take some well-known taglines, throw away the Plain English Campaign guidelines and see what happens.
Every little helps (Tesco) becomes individual actions contribute to the overall good.
And you’re done (once used by Amazon) becomes you have accomplished what you set out to do.
And Yes you can (you know who) becomes It is possible for you to achieve your goals.
Bigger, better and more effective? No. Just plodding and pedestrian, and full of self importance.
So next time you’re writing and feel yourself coming over all serious, remember the simple advice of the Plain English Campaign. It won’t cramp your style, and it won’t kill your creativity.
And it might just win you a new client. And that, in the end, is all that matters.
Find out more:
Magnificent obsession or just attention to detail?
[Image courtesy of Nutdanai at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]
Recently, a friend told me I was obsessive about grammar. Which I took, naturally, as a compliment. For one woman’s obsession is another man’s passion. Or attention to detail.
As with most things, it depends on your point of view. And in the case of my friend, her point of view was that she thought that grammar doesn’t really matter. As long as people know more or less what you’re saying, that’s OK.
The trouble is that you might just more or less make the sale depending on what you say.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather more than less. Sales and marketing copy isn’t just throwing words on a page and hoping they’re OK: it’s about getting all the little things right that send out cues to your readers.
Cues that tell them you’re the one they want to do business with.
So in the latest of my occasional series about those little grammar things that make a big difference – and that every writer should know – let’s look at two tweaks you can make to your copy that’ll make it sound more natural and connect with your reader.
Active or passive?
When we write, we often unwittingly slip into business-speak, because we think it sounds more professional. And it does, though that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Remember, your audience are not a class of badly-behaved pupils sitting quietly listening to a lecture. They can (virtually) get up and walk out any time they like.
A big part of business-speak is the use of the passive voice. So you end up with sentences like:
- Steps will be taken to reduce waste.
- You’ll be contacted by a customer service representative.
- Your order will be delivered by 5pm the next working day.
To turn passive into active, and cold into warm and friendly, simply flip it around. So this:
Steps will be taken to reduce waste.
We’ll take steps to reduce waste.
Similarly, you wave your magic wand and you have:
- A customer service representative will contact you.
- We’ll deliver your order by 5pm the next working day.
The resulting sentence sounds immediately more conversational – because it is. In real life, we use the active much more than the passive.
If you want to write like you speak, active it is.
Would have liked to have done
If active beats passive, then simple beats complicated.
If you’re talking about a situation that could have happened, but didn’t, then you simply say something like this:
I would have liked to attend the conference.
I’d like to have attended the conference.
Strictly speaking, they mean slightly different things, but to all intents and purposes, they’re they same.
The point here is that you only need the conditional past (as it’s called) once. And yet you increasingly hear:
I would have liked to have attended the conference.
It’s not wrong (as is often the case with grammar, there’s no right and wrong) but it sounds clumsy and inelegant. It also makes the possibility of attending the conference a very remote one, as if it never really mattered in the first place.
So if in doubt, leave the second ‘have’ out. It sounds more natural, and makes more sense. And more importantly, it makes you sound like somebody who cuts to the chase and says what they mean.
As you can see, neither of these is actually incorrect. It’s more a question of the impression you create. In a world where perception is reality, you want to control and manage that perception.
With the passive voice, you sound distant and remote. With the second construction, you sound as if you’re unnecessarily complicating a sentence that should be simple. Or that you’re trying to sound more formal and ‘correct’.
With sales and marketing copy, simplicity is king. Cut it back, pare it down, take it out and make it short. Result? Copy that sounds more human – and that connects with other humans.
Which is exactly what you want.
Back to basics: the grammar every writer really should know
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When you write for a living, you can’t help but notice all the little mistakes out there. Each one is like an itch that you’ve got to scratch. And sometimes, it seems as if I spend my life scratching.
You may not think these little things matter, but they do when it comes to corporate communication. Sloppiness or lack of attention to detail in writing can be symptomatic of bigger problems. And even if they’re not, they send out a negative message to people who pick up on these things.
And though those people are few and far between, all it takes is one tweet or post, and the word is out. Your company can’t spell, can’t write a decent email, can’t even be bothered to get a slogan right.
So here, in the first of an occasional series, I’m going going back to basics: scratching a couple of those itches that keep me awake at night.
Me or I?
When you’ve had a chance to review the PowerPoint presentation, please let John and I know what you think.
Does that look right to you? I’m thinking specifically of John and I. Would it sound better if you said John and me?
Many of us nowadays would hesitate. For some reason, John and I sounds more ‘correct’.
The reason is simple. Think back to when you were a kid. You said something like:
Me and John went to the swimming pool on Saturday.
And your teacher/parent said ‘Not me and John – it’s John and I.’ And so it is, in this particular instance, because you and John are the subject of the sentence: in other words, you’re the people who are carrying out the action.
The trouble is, this correct version has sneaked its way into other areas, where you and John are no longer the subject of the sentence, but the object.
The PowerPoint sentence above is a perfect example. The person you’re writing to is the subject, and you’re telling them to let you and John know. So you and John are the object of the sentence.
In that case, you have to say John and me. There’s a simple test to see whether it’s me or I: just omit the first person (John), and what do you get?
Please let I know what you think.
Which is clearly wrong.
So the rule is: if in doubt, take the other person out. If I sounds wrong, it’s wrong in all instances, not just when it’s on its own. Add one person or a dozen, it’s still me that you need.
This phenomenon is what linguists call hypercorrection: correcting something that sounds wrong, but which is actually right. Another very common example of this is between you and I.
It’s or Its?
Does this sentence contain a mistake?
Each department should review its budget and see if
if there’s further room for savings.
Yes it does. But it’s not the its.
Instead, it’s the repetition of if (at the end of the first line, and the start of the second one – a sneaky trick, I grant you, but one that shows how essential proofreading is).
Its and it’s cause endless difficulties, but there’s a very good reason for it. You see, we’re used to the idea that when a thing belongs to somebody or something, we put an apostrophe before the s.
So it’s the department’s budget or the manager’s PA or the campaign’s ROI.
So when we see it, and want to make it possessive, we add an apostrophe and an s.
Which is completely logical. Unfortunately, it’s also completely wrong. It is one of those words that defy logic: the possessive is its. It looks wrong, but it’s actually right.
Adding an apostrophe is yet another example of hypercorrection.
And what about it’s? Well that’s simply a contraction of it is.
Neither of these errors is serious in itself. It’s really what they say about the bigger picture that matters, especially in a corporate context.
If it’s a personal tweet, email, or IM, who really cares? But if you’re tweeting from a corporate account, you’re making a bad impression in 140 characters. Repeatedly.
Which is an itch that you really need to scratch. And right now.