Make sure your writing doesn’t hide your meaning

Just the other day, a client picked me up on something I’d written in a case study. Productivity increased dramatically, though costs went up only marginally. “Shouldn’t that be costs only went up marginally?” he said tentatively. He was sure, he said, that it sounded wrong. He was right – it did sound wrong. But in fact, it was right. Getting in touch with my inner pedant (it doesn’t take much searching) I explained that the adverb (only) should directly precede the word it modifies – in this case, another adverb (marginally). There was a short pause on the line, as he took this in. And then brushed it aside. “OK,” he said, ” I see your point, but can we change it to costs only went up marginally?” And that’s what we did. In this case, it didn’t make any difference. Wherever the word only went, the sense was unchanged. And more often than not, people put it in the ‘wrong’ place. But it sounds right, and that’s all that matters. When it comes to copy, anything that slows the reader down, makes them stumble or read something twice should be avoided. It all comes down to the golden rule of copy: write as you speak. Client 1. Kevin 0.

More or less (or fewer)

That said, pedantry isn’t always misplaced. Often, paying attention to the little things makes a big difference. It’s all a question of balance. Take less and fewer. In most cases, you can use them interchangeably without affecting the meaning. (It’s worth noting that it’s always best to try to get it right. Somewhere out there, somebody will be put off by these small things, which they think are indicative of bigger ones – customer service, attention to detail, follow-up of enquiries etc.). The rule is pretty easy to remember: less is always followed by a singular noun, fewer always by a plural. So less waste but fewer expenses. Less units were sold than we expected is wrong, but it’s not a show-stopper. It can still be understood by your readers, as there’s no ambiguity. Sometimes, however, it radically alters the meaning of the sentence. Here’s an extract from an article from The Times talking about the positive effects of the recession. The journalist is quoting Nicholas Taleb, the author of the must-have-but-soon-forgotten business book of 2008, The Black Swan (the bold is my addition):
Taleb also looks forward to “less confident businessmen on cellphones in trains, airplane lounges and restaurants, less arrogant bankers and economists needing to prove they are not parasites by paying attention to the material world”.
So let’s see: is that businessmen who are less confident, or fewer businessmen who are just as confident as before? And the same goes for the bankers – less arrogant, or not as many of them? There’s no way of knowing.

Cutting a dash

The same confusion can be caused by the humble hyphen. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter whether you use it or not. You can leave it out without affecting the meaning. As I did just last week, when I put together a long piece on search engine optimisation. Each time I wrote the phrase, I cringed a little to myself. It should really be search-engine optimisation, but nobody writes it like that. So hyphenless it remains, and the meaning is still clear. But that’s not always the case. A client of mine a while back had a website that was peppered with the phrase risk free hosting. He read it as a statement: hosting without risks. I read it as a command: Take a risk on free hosting! (no cost, no guarantees, you get what you pay for – and you pay nothing). When I pointed this out, there was a sharp intake of breath. And the quick addition of a hyphen, so it became risk-free hosting. The same problem cropped up with child health researcher, a phrase I saw in source material I was reading for a white paper. Immediately, I imagined a 10-year-old kid with a clipboard interviewing people about their medical problems. In the white paper, I changed it to child-health researcher – somebody who specialised in the area of paediatric care, and whose age is largely irrelevant. I encountered a similar problem with copresenter, in a US client’s copy aimed at the UK market. I saw somebody who didn’t like policemen (cop resenter). She saw somebody who shared the stage with a colleague (co-presenter). We added a hyphen.

It’s not about you

The key consideration with all copy is how easily it can be read by your reader. And for that, you can either stick to the rules, break the rules or just bend the rules. But here’s a rule you should never forget: simple copy works best. As soon as you try to dress it up, you’re sending a message out. This is about me, you’re telling your readers. Just look how clever I am. If in doubt, leave it out. And that especially applies to foreign, obscure or high-flown expressions. Here are just some of the toe-curlers I’ve seen recently in marketing copy:
  • Pyrrhic victory to mean a minor victory. A Pyrrhic victory is one where your losses are so heavy that even though you won, you’re virtually ruined. It’s a technical win, not a real one. So when a marketing agency boasts of a Pyrrhic victory, run for cover.
  • Beg the question, followed by a question. This doesn’t mean the same as raise the question or pose the question. It means to use circular logic (‘We don’t need a nuclear deterrent because we’ve never had to use it.’).
  • In extremis doesn’t mean in extreme circumstances, or when the going gets tough. This now-ubiquitous Latin expression means that you’re at death’s door, so you should probably have ‘extreme unction’ (where a priest anoints you with holy oil before you pop your clogs).
The message is clear. Pay attention to the little details, and strive for absolute clarity. Tell a simple story in simple language and put your ego in your pocket. That way, you’ll win over the reader. Every time.