How to Write When You Can’t Change Things

I led a class for a group of writers who respond to citizen complaints about airplane noise. The writers cannot make the planes quieter, and they can’t make them go away. What can they do? They can respond in ways…

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Things Changed–Is Your Style Guide Up to Date?

While you have been busy working, some of the rules of writing evolved, and the University of Chicago Press released a new Chicago Manual of Style. Take a look at the changes below to determine which ones you need to adopt. Then update your company style guide to be sure everyone is writing consistent, up-to-date pieces.

For this post, I consulted The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago), published in September, The Associated Press Stylebook 2017 (AP), Garner’s Modern English Usage (Garner’s)which was published in 2016, and Microsoft Manual of Style (Microsoft)published in 2012.

1. Words with web are no longer capitalized and are sometimes closed up: website, webmaster, webcam, and webcast, but web address and web browser. AP, Garner’s, and Microsoft recommend webpage, but Chicago still prefers the open web pageAP (effective 2016), Microsoft, and Chicago use the lower case web as a short form of World Wide Web, but Garner’s uses Web for that purpose.

2. You can stop capitalizing internet if you follow Chicago—or AP, which changed its approach in 2016. However, Garner’s and Microsoftstill capitalize it.

3. The ever-present word email should be lower case and closed up. That’s according to Chicago, AP (effective 2011), and MicrosoftGarner's lists three versions—E-mail, e-mail, and email—noting that “The unhyphenated email is unsightly, but it might prevail in the end.” (Might? It certainly will!) Other e words are generally not capitalized unless they appear at the beginning of a sentence or in a heading, and they are hyphenated: e-book, e-reader, e-commerce, e-form, e-learning.

4. The word voicemail is closed up according to AP (since 2016) and Garner's. However, Microsoft and Chicago render it open: voice mailChicago doesn’t single out voice mail for discussion, but its rules on compound words call for the word to be rendered open.

5. Using they as a singular pronoun has become acceptable in some cases. The Washington Post argued in late 2015: “Allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer. And once we’ve done that, why not allow it for the most awkward of those he or shesituations that have troubled us for so many years?”

AP chimes in on the awkwardness issue. In its 2017 edition, APstates, “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.” For example, to avoid revealing an individual’s gender, this their is acceptable: “The employee believed their safety could not be guaranteed.”

Chicago now states: “While this usage [they, them, their, andthemselves] is accepted in those spheres [speech and informal writing], it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.”

Garner’s recommends its careful use: “Where it can’t be avoided, resort to it cautiously because some people may doubt your literacy.” And Microsoft advises, “Although . . . they for a singular antecedent is gaining acceptance. . . . Whenever possible, write around the problem.”

Note: The singular they always takes a plural verb, just as you does.

6. Over = more than for quantities. In 2014, AP joined Chicago andGarner’s in accepting over as synonymous with more than. Example: “She has over 20 years of experience.” AP describes over as "acceptable in all uses to indicate greater numerical value.” However, Microsoft still recommends more than for quantities; it uses over “to refer to a position or location above something.”

7. One space—not two! This isn’t a recent change. As far back as 2004, virtually all style guides have dictated one space after end punctuation and colons. If you are still using two, it’s time to adapt. Remember what happened to the dinosaurs.

8. In the 21st century, there’s no reason to render a number both spelled out and in figures—not even in contracts. Consider these redundancies: “You may cancel the contract within three (3) days” and “A deposit of $250 (two hundred fifty dollars) is due upon signing.” In the very old days, numbers were repeated to prevent them from being altered, according to attorney Bryan Garner. And back in the days of fuzzy carbon copies, spelled out numbers were easier to read. Today there’s no need for them. 

I shared the changes above with a friend who wrote back: "I prefer eLearning. It still seems an unsettled question." Not to me! With so many things unsettled in the world, I'm going to defer to the style manuals and get on with my life. 

How about you and your editorial team? Do you follow the advice of a well-respected style guide? Or do you go it alone? 

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Timber! (or Timbre?)

I just finished reading another excellent mystery by Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery. Penny's series of Inspector Gamache mysteries, which take place in Québec, gets better and better with each volume. I'm always looking forward to the next one. 

This time I read a library book. To my surprise, a previous reader wrote in the book, something I rarely see in books from the library. The individual wrote timbre over this bit of dialogue:

"Well, I have an unusual singing voice. A strange timber." 

Would you have caught the error–and annotated it? I was glad the previous reader had. It helped me recognize the correct spelling of timbre. 

Definition of timbre: the combination of qualities of a sound that distinguishes it from other sounds of the same pitch and volume.

Definition of the more familiar timber: trees or wooded land considered as a source of wood. Wood used as a building material; lumber. 

I was glad to relearn this correct spelling. And to find out at the end of the book who had killed the prior!

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I’m Sorry You . . . Did It to Yourself

The other day I participated in an online chat about cats being allowed to roam free in our neighborhood. Opinions for and against piled up minute by minute, with some people expressing strong views. Reading the comments, I noticed this one: 

I'm sorry you were offended by my tone.

The passive verb "were offended" leads to a non-apology apology. It's an "It's-your-fault" apology. Compare this wording, which takes responsibility for the tone: 

I'm sorry my tone offended you.
 

A recent angry email reply from a blog reader referred to me as "impolite" and used several hostile phrases to characterize my response to her original message. This email shocked me because I had taken the time to answer the individual's question, and I always intend to communicate positively. Nevertheless, I had failed, and my conciseness had come across as brusque. 

In my reply to the angry email, politeness was essential. That's why I quickly changed the wording of the opening sentence. I changed:

I am sorry you felt my response was discourteous. 

To: 

I am sorry that my response came across as discourteous.

 

Do you recognize the problem with the original statements? Both of them say "I am sorry you . . . " In print such statements can come across as blame shifting: "I'm sorry you are overly sensitive" or "I am sorry you are a jerk." Consider these examples:

I am sorry you took my comment the wrong way. 

I am sorry you didn't let me know I needed to be on time. 

I am sorry you didn't confirm our appointment. 

I am sorry you didn't understand that I was joking. 

 

Here's how to accept blame rather than shifting it to the other person: 

I am sorry my comment came across the wrong way. 

I am sorry that I didn't realize I needed to be on time. 

I am sorry I forgot about our appointment. 

I am sorry that my joke bombed. 

 

It doesn't help to try to share the blame. These statements won't build relationships:

I am sorry but you're to blame too. 

I am sorry but you have to accept your part in this. 

 

Yes, those statements may be true, but they are not true apologies. If the situation requires an apology, give one. 

 

But what if you don't feel your behavior requires an apology? Let's say you have done nothing wrong. 

Apologize anyway. The relationship requires an apology. Although you might feel good defending your actions or pointing out the other person's role in the situation, apologizing will help you move on. It will also earn you points as a mature professional who chooses his or her battles. 

In my email exchange with the angry blog reader, I didn't think I had done anything wrong. I had simply been concise and direct. Yet my message did not come across that way–I can't argue about that. So I might as well admit that my message failed and apologize. 

Do you have more examples of non-apology apologies? Please share them. 

By the way, the non-apology in the cat-roaming chat did not end the exchange. The other person wrote back defending her feelings, and then the first person did the same. And so it goes. 

Would you like to read more about how to write successful apologies, including the four parts they need? Get my book Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time. It includes the chapter "Write Apologies to Mend Fences and Support Relationships." Get the book from Syntax Training (with a laminated bookmark and a personal message from me), Amazon, or your favorite bookseller (ISBN 978-0-9778679-0-5). 

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Whistler’s Apostrophe Challenge

I visited beautiful Whistler, British Columbia, last week and loved everything about it–except perhaps for its free-spirited use and avoidance of apostrophes. Its businesses' signs kept my writing teacher's mind spinning.

Here's a challenge for you: See if you can determine which of the signs are punctuated according to current writing standards. When you find one that is not correct, decide how you would change it if its owner would let you. 

1. 

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2. 

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3. 

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4.

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5.

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6.

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7. 

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8. 

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10.

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11.

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12.

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14. 

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15.

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Can you tell why I went sign-crazy in Whistler? Which ones would you change? See my comments below. 

 

 

 

 

1. Ingrid's–I love you! All your signs were consistent and correct. Ingrid is a singular noun, so its possessive form is Ingrid's. 

2. St. Andrews House–what happened? Why did you choose to leave out the apostrophe? The traditional rendering is St. Andrew's. 

3. Like St. Andrews, the cigar store needs an apostrophe: Castro's. 

4. I savored quite a few Rogers' chocolates, and I loved their sign. Rogers' is correct. Although some style manuals would recommend Rogers's, that form would be too fussy on a sign. 

5. Fat Tony's has great pizza and perfect punctuation. 

6. Garfinkel's punctuated this sign correctly, but their vertical signs say Garfs (not shown). If they wanted to be consistent, they would choose Garf's. 

7. and 8. These are signs for the same establishment. Buffalo Bill's wins for correctness.

9. I'd like to talk Earls into an apostrophe: Earl's. 

10. I'm going to interpret Cow's cute cone as a correct apostrophe although other Cow's signs left it out. 

11. and 12. These signs are trying hard to be correct. And they both might be depending on whether we want to think of one skier or more than one. But an easier way to handle Skiers Approach and Skiers Plaza is to think of them as forskiers rather than of skiers or belonging to skiers. That way, we can avoid the possessive forms and not worry about singular and plural. 

13. Shoppers Drug Mart has–correctly, I think–chosen to avoid the possessive form. This approach is what I suggested for Skiers in 11 and 12. 

14. Let's change this to Black's Restaurant, which would match their Black's Pub sign (not shown).  

15. The creative rendering of DAVIDsTEA inspired me to watch for signs in Whistler. DAVID'S TEA would be correct but not catchy. The more I saw DAVIDsTEA rendered that way, the more it convinced me that its distinctiveness won out over conventionalism. 

Do you prefer correct, conventional renderings or creative ones? And how did you do on the challenge?

I wasn't able to visit every establishment I photographed–a great reason to return to Whistler!

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Do This 7 Times

I was in a meeting where the Chief Communications Officer was explaining to the CEO that he had to repeat his change message, again and again and again. She had a comprehensive list of strategic outlets for his message. Everything was lined up and carefully planned.

Instead of embracing such a well thought out program, the CEO groaned. “But I told them we’re changing,” he said. “What else can I say?”

Ah. This gentleman clearly didn’t understand a simple basic guide for message (especially change messages): Repeat, repeat, and repeat again. In fact, a good rule of thumb is: Message at least seven times.

Why? It’s not because the executive doesn’t communicate well, or the communications effort is lacking. It’s because you want your message to be heard. You have to cut through the noise. When employees are focused on their customers and their work, striving to achieve their goals, while bombarded with org announcements, compliance reminders, building alerts, sales metrics, HR deadlines, project notifications, industry updates — and everything else that makes up work and life — you have to put in effort to be heard.

And you have to put in a lot of effort. You need to enable the message to be both repeated and amplified.

As you strategize to communicate your organization’s next change, take a look at the document that is your communications action plan. As an exercise, count the times your key audiences are “touched” by the change message. If you hit that threshold of seven times, you know that you’re on the right track to being heard. But if you see a lower trend, take a few minutes to think about how you can repeat, repeat, and repeat again. It’s worth it.

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Test Your Error-Finding Skills

Each of the three short passages below has one error in the choice of a word. Can you find all three errors? Test your skills.

Passage 1: 
Bishara's most recent position was principal designer for Barton and Bloss. In the interviews we conducted, his interviewers gave him the highest amount of positive comments compared with the other applicants. Regrettably, Dr. Su was not able to meet with him. 

Passage 2:
During our vacation in Washington, D.C., we are looking forward to seeing the sites, especially the museums. It will be fun to visit awhile and enjoy our capital and its many treasures. 

Passage 3:
Avoid ambiguity! When writing to individuals who do not speak your language fluently, use words with fewer alternate meanings, i.e., choose seminar, which has only one meaning, over class, which has many. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have you made your choices? Below are explanations. 

 

 

 

 

 

Passage 1

The word principal is correct. If you thought principle might be a better choice for "principal designer," not so. The word principle (le) means only "rule" (le). 

Regrettably is also correct. Dr. Su might have had to regretfully decline, but it was regrettable that she was not there. 

The incorrect word is amount. Use number with things you can count, like comments: "the highest number of positive comments." 

 

 

Passage 2

The incorrect word is sites, which means "locations or positions." It should be sights, things to be seen. 

And capital is also correct when referring to a capital of a country, state, or province. Use capitol only when referring to the building in which the legislature meets. For the building where the U.S. Congress meets, use Capitol.  

 

 

Passage 3

The problem is i.e., which means "that is." Example: "He works the graveyard shift, i.e., 11 p.m. to 7 a.m." The test sentence required e.g., which means "for example."

Fewer is correct with countable things: "fewer meanings." Less would be wrong. 

If you thought alternate was wrong, you agree with many strict grammarians, who believe alternative should replace it in the test sentence. Alternate implies a substitution: "When a delegate is unavailable, the alternate may vote." It's also correct for "every other": "alternate Saturdays." Alternative is the right word for something nontraditional ("an alternative newspaper") or for a choice ("alternative meanings"). However, the rule is loosening, and some writers accept "alternate meanings." 

 

How did you do? If you would like more practice identifying the right word, get my 60 Quick Word Fixes, which includes a 45-item test. I also recommend Bryan Garner's HBR Guide to Better Business Writingwhich includes a 34-page appendix, "Common Usage Gaffes." Besides that, it's an excellent business writing guide. 

Which words confuse you? I can trip over some time / sometime / sometimes and palate / palette / pallet, but I just flip through 60 Quick Word Fixes and read my explanation. 

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Let Me Sell You Some Assisted Living

Last week I went with two friends to visit an assisted living facility they were considering for their mother. A warm, welcoming man shook hands with us and led us into his office. As we entered, I noticed the door plate. It said Sales and Marketing. 

We were not there for sales and marketing. We were looking for a home for their mother, who needs special care. 

This visit reminded me of going through the same situation with my elderly father a few years ago in Florida. He and I visited the facility, and the Director of Sales and Marketing led us into her office. 

Sales and Marketing–that label simply doesn't match the experience of the potential customers. Such visitors don't even think of themselves as customers but as people seeking a home for someone who needs extra help 

Sales and Marketing is internal language. But it's jarring in this situation, where it's not what people expect. If I am buying a car, an entertainment system, or a timeshare, yes, send me to Sales and Marketing. But here, the label focuses too much on the institution's goal rather than the visitors' needs. 

What's a better name for Sales and Marketing, one that would match the expectations of the visiting adults and their elderly parents? Resident Enrollment? New Resident Welcome? New Resident Information? 

And beyond this situation, have you noticed business terms that just don't match the experience you seek?

I welcome your suggestions and reactions. 

Lynn 
Syntax Training

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Why a Curriculum on Writing to Build Relationships?

With Labor Day and the start of the new school year, I happened to read two articles that covered the difficult role of adjunct instructors: "The Adjunct Revolt: How Poor Professors Are Fighting Back," published in 2014, and "In ‘Campus Confidential,’ a Professor Laments That Teaching Is Not the Priority of Teachers," published last month. With the struggles of adjuncts on my mind, I want to be sure business writing instructors know about my free curriculum, Business Writing That Builds Relationships. 

But why a business writing curriculum on building relationships? Below is an excerpt from the curriculum, an in-class exercise, that shows why.

*****

Written exercise and paired discussion to gain insight into the importance of relationships.

Ask students to each think of a career they want to pursue or one they are considering as an option. Then ask them to list who their coworkers might be and who their internal or external customers might be.

Example: A student wants to be in sales. Her coworkers might be other sales reps and the sales assistants. She would probably have a sales manager and a sales director. Internally, she would probably deal with sales support, marketing, advertising, perhaps manufacturing, and inventory processors or supply chain managers. She would also have external customers.

Ask students to pair up. Their partners should review their lists to see if they can add anyone to the lists. Ask one individual to read his or her list aloud for a shared reference point.

Ask students to reflect on their lists:

  • Which of the people on your list do you need to have a good working relationship with?
  • Are there any people with whom a good relationship is not necessary or beneficial?

Students should experience an aha moment about the importance of relationships.

Point out that the value of relationships is not just their providing a pleasant working experience. It’s their helpfulness in getting information. Read aloud or show the Karen Stephenson quote from her essay "Trafficking in Trust: The Art and Science of Human Knowledge Networks," p. 10 in the text:

“Knowledge ebbs and flows down hallways, in meetings, and in private conversations inside and outside the office. The key to the way that knowledge travels lies in the relationships that can bypass the standard organization chart. . . . Relationships are the true medium of knowledge exchange.” 

Ask students:

As you look at your list of people in your work world, how many of them might provide you with useful information? (Probably anyone on their list could share useful information.)

*****

That exercise takes place on the first day, followed by two ice-breaking exercises that help students build relationships with one another. Then they discuss the introductory chapter of Business Writing With Heart, which covers the ROI of writing with heart. 

Yes, I would love to sell more books. But even without book sales, if the free 90-page curriculum helps adjuncts or full-time business writing instructors in any way, their success will be my reward. 

Please share this information with the business writing instructors you know, especially any who may have just accepted a teaching assignment and are scrambling for a curriculum. They can check out the book's table of contents, get the free curriculum, and preview the first chapter.  

To all who teach, have an excellent start to the academic year!

Lynn
Syntax Training

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How to Unintentionally Diminish Others

The other day I met my friend Barb for lunch. She arrived at the restaurant first, and the server asked, “Just one?”

Barb often eats out alone, and she frowns when she hears that question. This time she replied, “Here is where I should have a snappy comeback, but I don’t.” Then she explained her issue with the question “Just one?” to the server.

When I arrived, Barb told me about the conversation. She explained that when she eats out alone, she does not want to be characterized as “just one.” She doesn't appreciate the suggestion that there is something lacking in her experience. One should be plenty when dining out. 

Of course, servers and greeters simply want to know the number of diners to expect. What could they ask instead of “Just one?” Which alternatives can you think of? I have a few below.  

 

Tabletop

 

Instead of "Just one?" they might ask: 

  • One for lunch?
  • Table for one? 
  • How many?
  • Will anyone be joining you today?

Any of those options would sound better to Barb and would not diminish her dining experience. 

Barb's feelings as a solo diner led me to think about ways in which writers make their readers feel the same way, that is, as though they are lacking or insufficient. As a reader, have you had any of the experiences below?

The writer: 

  • Emphasizes your mistake or forgetfulness, with a direct statement like "You have the wrong price" or "I told you that in my previous message."
  • Leaves you feeling uninformed by using jargon or abbreviations you don't know.
  • Asks a question similar to "Just one?" that minimizes your experience, such as "Is that the only item you want to order?" or "Is that your only feedback?" 
  • Focuses on what you can't do rather than what might work, with a statement like "You cannot open an investor class account with an amount that small" or "That ballroom is not available to your group." 
  • Introduces negative words to characterize your behavior, such as "I received your complaint" or "I understand your confusion."

What's your experience? Do you occasionally receive messages that seem to diminish you? Could you relate to Barb's feelings? Or do you recognize how you might improve your own communication? I look forward to your comments. 

To learn how to strengthen relationships through writing, get my award-winning book Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time.

Lynn
Syntax Training

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