Remember when Robert Novak (surprise, surprise) became upset with something James Carville said, blurted out the word “bullshit,” and stormed off the set?
Well, I’m no friend of Novak’s, but I was amused at what reporters were saying he said on that occasion. Few dared to use the actual word, “bullshit.” My, how inappropriate for our sensitive readers. One writer got it pretty close. He said Novak used a barnyard term. Not bad.
But others said he cursed. Swore. Used obscenities. Even used profanities. I don’t know whether anyone wrote that he used vulgarities.
Now as a person who has taught general-semantics for a couple of decades, I know perfectly well that words can mean whatever you want them to mean. Nevertheless, normally we do expect people to use words in their generally accepted meanings.
For eight editions of News Reporting and Writing by the Missouri Group (I’m a co-author), I’ve struggled to make some distinctions in the following words in a chapter on using quotations and attributions:
* When people curse, doesn’t that mean that they want someone to go to hell, usually by damning them? I admit, most of the time people just “damn it,” whatever “it” is.
* Swearing involves taking an oath or calling upon the deity or at least someone regarded as sacred to witness to the truth of what we’re saying. We’re expected to swear in court though I’m not sure why, other than if we lie in court, we can be convicted for perjury.
* An obscenity is a word or a phrase that usually refers to sexual parts or functions in an offensive way. Most people can’t imagine, for example, using the “f” word in an inoffensive way.
* A large number of people are always offended by profanity. There’s a commandment about that – taking the name of the lord in vain. Using a word or phrase referring to the deity or to beings regarded as divine, even if only done carelessly and thoughtlessly, is regarded as sacrilegious.
* And then there are vulgarities. I like to call them “bathroom” words. We’re talking about excretory words or phrases used in a less-than-polite way.
Does all of this make sense? There are some words that I don’t know how to classify. “Hell” is one of them. I once asked a person, “What the hell does that mean?” And she said, “Well, you don’t have to start cursing.”
So often we use words in all of the classifications above because we can’t think of anything else to say. So often they demonstrate our real dearth of vocabulary. You know, it’s cold as hell; it’s hot as hell. What the hell do those statements mean?
But who can deny that sometimes a good “damn” just feels right. And so does a good “bullshit.”
So, all you writer and readers, get off Novak’s case. You’ve all said much worse in similar circumstances. And if you want to attack Novak, there are much better reasons.
This is a bibliography of writing books I recommend in my seminars. You may order most of these books by clicking the links below.
Bonime, Andrew, and Pohlmann, Ken C. Writing for New Media,
New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998.
Brooks, Brian, George Kennedy, Daryl Moen and Don Ranly. News
Reporting and Writing, 8th ed. New York:
Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2005.
Brooks, Brian, George Kennedy, Daryl Moen and Don Ranly.
Telling The Story: The Convergence of Print, Television
and Online Media. 2nd ed. Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
Brooks, Brian and James Pinson. Working With Words, 6th ed. New
York. Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2006.
Caples, John, How to Make Your Advertising Make Money. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.
Flesch, Rudolf. The Art of Readable Writing. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
Kennedy, George, Daryl Moen and Don Ranly. Beyond the Inverted
Pyramid. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Kilpatrick, James. The Writer’s Art. Kansas City: Andrews,
McMell & Parker, 1984.
Ogilvy, David. Olgilvy on Advertising. Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, Canada Limited, 1985.
Osborn, Patricia. How Grammar Works: A Self-Teaching Guide. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1989.
Ranly, Don. Publication Editing. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt
Strunk, William and White, E.B. Elements of Style. 3rd ed. New
York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1999.
The Associated Press Stylebook And Briefing on Media Law.
Perseus Publishing, 2004.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. 2nd ed,, New York: Harper &
Judy Gombita spotted this list of Great Literary Taunts:
- “A modest little person, with much to be modest about.” — Winston Churchill (about Clement Atlee)
- “I’ve just learned about his illness. Let’s hope it’s nothing trivial.” — Irvin S. Cobb
- “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” — William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)
- “He had delusions of adequacy.” — Walter Kerr
- “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.” — Thomas Brackett Reed
- “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” — Mark Twain
One of the most debated questions in all of journalism is how to handle direct quotations. Journalists “claim” (what a nasty way to attribute something) that they put inside quotations marks only what a person says. That’s what I urge in a chapter on quotations and attribution in the Missouri Group’s “News Reporting and Writing” (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press). But I could prove on any given day in any given newspaper that that rule is broken as much as it is followed.
Nevertheless, it’s a whole different story in corporate communications and news releases. I have been amused in seminars to corporate communicators how shocked they are when I tell them to change direct quotations however so slightly. For example, people use “very” very often in their everyday speech. I’d knock it out in direct quotations. Shocking. These same people often have little trouble making up whole quotations. Often the direct quotes are long, wooden and pretentious. I often ask, “Does he really talk like that?” Sometimes the answer is , “Yes, you betcha.” If he does, should you let him in print?
Do you have a policy on direct quotations? What is it? Join the discussion.
Dick Weiss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch does some neat stuff on writing in his Weiss on Writing at STLtoday.com. His address is email@example.com. Recently he did a nice paragraph about punctuation and then took off about the exclamation point. His title was “Ban the exclamation point — period.” It’s a bit overstated, but that’s OK. I feel even stronger about banning MOST dashes. I say beware the dasher who when it doubt dashes. If you see a dash in the first paragraph, start counting them. Dashers are even worse when they have another point to make in a sentence and can think of no way to add it except after a dash. Another sentence usually works just fine. I had a teaching assistant once who said her high-school teacher told her class that they were allowed one dash per essay. I like that. Save the dash for dramatic contrast or emphasis.
Some members of our magazine faculty here at the Missouri School of Journalism got stirred up over something the person who is teaching Magazine Editing this semester wrote. He questioned the use of the semicolon, especially in direct quotations. He doesn’t mind the semicolon to break up lists that have commas inside them, but he wonders why and how we can determine whether two complete sentences or independent clauses are closely related enough to skip the coordinating conjunction and use the semicolon instead. I think that careful writers often do want to show a close relationship between two complete thoughts. For example, “He enjoyed writing; he wrote every chance he had.” Certainly we don’t want to join two complete sentences with simply a comma. A comma alone joining two independent clauses is a comma fault or a comma splice. I don’t allow them — ever. I do allow three or more short sentences to be joined with commas.
The professor questioned how we ever know a speaker means to have two thoughts closely related. Isn’t that interpreting what the speaker is trying to say? My answer is, first of all, that if the speaker does not use a conjunction, we shouldn’t insert one. Second, we always interpret what a speaker is saying or trying to say. People don’t speak using punctuation marks, except perhaps for Victor Borge. We insert punctuation marks such as commas, question marks, and even sometimes, exclamation points.
He emailed me that he thought semicolons in direct quotations looked funny. I emailed him back that he had a strange sense of humor. Of course, I don’t think we should overdo the semicolon between sentences, especially in direct quotations.
See how journalism professors spend their time?
Writing good is a big deal these days. A bigger deal then math, according to my friends and I, but I’m not hear to represent there views. But, I thank it’s important to know the English language and all it’s rules.
Did you catch all the errors in that first paragraph? The spell-check on my laptop didn’t.
The College Board – those friendly scholars who bring us the SATs and other fun tests – recently released the results of a survey by its National Commission on Writing. The news is not good. A majority of U.S. employers say about one-third of workers do not meet the writing requirements of their positions. “Businesses are really crying out,” College Board President Gaston Caperton told the Associated Press. “They need to have people who write better.”
The employers who say people need to write better are in some surprising industries: mining; construction; manufacturing; transportation and utilities; services; and finance, insurance and real estate. It seems companies want everyone to be able to communicate effectively, not just the executives, lawyers and public relations people.
This might come as a surprise not only to people in the working world, but also to people who are preparing to enter it. Students who believe the informal shorthand of e-mail and instant messages is acceptable in corporate America might be in for a shock when they lose the jobs of their dreams because of misspelled words on their resumés. I recently read a self-promotion posted by a recent graduate on a job-seekers discussion board for the public relations industry. The misspelled words, poor sentence construction and grammatical errors were enough to make E.B. White turn over in his grave. It’s bad enough that the job seeker embarrassed herself in front of thousands of professional peers (she even proudly announced the college from which she graduated). I only hope no one committed the greater sin of actually hiring her.
I have a friend who recently left the practice of business communication so he could teach it to the next generation of professionals. In just a few weeks in the classroom he has experienced something akin to culture shock. “It is disturbing how little these students know about the English language and its proper usage,” he lamented recently.
A lot of people ask why it’s important to use correct grammar, spelling and punctuation in their jobs. I have two answers:
Standards are necessary for society to function. Imagine if a construction company decided it was no longer important to follow standards of measurement. One foot might be 13 inches or 12 inches. Who cares? Just as chaos would reign in that scenario, the same would be true if we didn’t follow standards of language. Clear communication would be impossible.
Credibility is at stake. I would not trust a computer programmer who doesn’t know code, a chef who doesn’t know how to measure ingredients, or a doctor who doesn’t know the human anatomy. Just as these people must know how to use the tools of their trade, so anyone who uses English to communicate must know how to use it correctly.
Fixing the problem that the College Board survey exposes is not easy. Teachers will have to stop misspelling words on the communications they send home to parents. (Yes, I’m the parent who keeps sending those notes back with proofreading marks all over them.) Students will have to take Language Arts more seriously, like it’s a ticket to a decent job. Most difficult of all, employers will have to insist that the people who work for them – no matter what their jobs or salaries – begin using correct grammar, learn how to write well and spell words correctly. Annual bonuses should depend upon it.
By the way, my laptop’s spell check caught only one out of at least seven mistakes in the first paragraph. “It’s” should be “its.” (I believe the second sentence is a fragment, which would be an eighth error, although the laptop doesn’t think so.)
Thanks to the onslaught of technology and our need to constantly rush through everything, our grammar has gotten worse. Emails, text messages and other corporate communications are being sent without a thorough and professional proofreading, and using poor grammar in the workplace can have some negative impacts on your business.
It causes confusion.
If you use poor grammar in the workplace, you could end up confusing those people who need to read what you write or listen to what you say. Causing confusion will negatively impact your company’s productivity and require additional communications to clear up the confusion.
It makes you look unprofessional.
Poor grammar makes you look unprofessional. Nobody wants to do business with the company that has spelling and grammatical errors in their marketing materials, and no client wants to do business with the representative who doesn’t know the difference between their, there and they’re.
It hinders productivity.
Read full article on Every Marketing Thing
One of the worst mistakes email copywriters make is trying to shove the entire story into the email message. Think about when you open a marketing email in your inbox. Do you read every single word in there? Probably not. It’s more likely that you scan for important points so you can glean the overall message, and decide whether you want to take any action. So if you’re sending email with hundreds of words of copy, you’re making it much more difficult for recipients to decide whether they want to click through … because they can’t quickly sift through all of the information in your email!
Instead, find a way to summarize what the reader will get in a compelling way, and let them click through to a page on your website for more information. Take a look at how this HubSpot customer and Certified Partner Precision Athletics drafted a brief email that encouraged readers to click through for more information:
There are a few lines of copy used to set up the purpose of the email and, of course, thank the recipient for utilizing their free training session. But after that, Precision Athletics gets to the point of the email — delivering success stories from those who have completed the training program to motivate the email recipient.
Keeping your message on-point is the key to writing brief email copy. What’s the point you’re trying to make with your email? If you know the action your email is supposed to drive — recipient buys a grill the size of a Foosball table, recipient remembers to buy their Bruce Springsteen tickets, recipient gets motivated to work out — you’ll have a much easier time drafting succinct email copy that remains focused on that one end goal. And if writing succinct email copy isn’t enough of a motivator for you to narrow down your goals, remember that having just one primary call-to-action in your email marketing results in better click-through rates than emails with competing calls-to-action!
Use Actionable Language in Your CTA
That’s right, emails have calls-to-action, too! Well, the good ones do. First and foremost, your email call-to-action should be extremely easy to identify. Remember, people scan their emails, and if there’s one thing you want your recipient to pick up on, it’s your call-to-action. If you’re sending an HTML email, you may decide to include a button like this AmazonLocal email did below.
Here are six rules of thumb that will help you write a sales message that actually helps you move an opportunity forward. I’ve got a few examples below, too, so you can see how to turn a bad message into a better one.
1. Write like you talk.
Sales messages are meant to be spoken. Even when somebody reads the message, you want readers to feel like you’re talking to them personally. Therefore, whenever you write a sales message, ask yourself: “Does this sound like something I’d actually say to a real person?” If not, your message won’t work well.
Before: “Engineers efficiently evaluate and improve their designs using our software tools. We are dedicated to building the most advanced vehicle system simulation tools.”
After: “Engines designed with our simulation software are more fuel-efficient than those that aren’t.”
2. Use common words rather than biz-blab.
Unfortunately, when most business folks sit down to write something, they turn into Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss and start writing in gibberish, stuffing sentences full of important-sounding terminology that means little or nothing. The cure is to use simple nouns and verbs that have a precise meaning.
Before: “We provide ‘one stop shopping’ for all of your HR needs. Through a single relationship, you have access to HR services for the continuum of the employment life cycle.”
After: “We help our clients with hiring, compensation, compliance, and training, so that they can spend more time running their business and less time and hassle dealing with HR details.”
3. State facts rather than promises.
Promises are only meaningful to people who already trust you, and that list probably doesn’t include prospects who aren’t yet customers. In fact, most people view a promise from a stranger with skepticism if not outright suspicion.
It’s more effective to provide a quantitative, verifiable fact that creates credibility.
Before: “You’ll love our dedicated account managers, comprehensive inventory, reliable delivery and competitive pricing.”
After: “Our customers save as much as $100,000 a year when they purchase directly from our account managers.”
The value of this Business Plan process is the thinking that it forces you to do about your business, your products and services, your goals and the actions you’ll take to achieve your goals. Even if no one but you ever sees the plan, you will have given purposeful and logical thought to the purpose and direction of your business. This process helps ensure that the many activities you squeeze into your limited hours are time well spent – focused on moving your business forward in an aggressive yet realistic way.
Part 1: Analysis
- List the core services (or products) you offer
- Be as specific as possible, but put similar items in a group (e.g., “Editorial Services” includes writing, editing, etc.)
- List the market segments you serve
- Be realistic; if you realistically cannot serve large corporations, for example, then don’t include them
- Be as specific as possible, but put similar items in a group unless there is a compelling reason to list them separately (e.g., “School Groups” could include secondary schools and colleges, but these segments might have different needs)
- List your competitors and a brief description of them
- Unless a specific competitor presents unique challenges to your business, it is OK to list them in groups (e.g., “Independent Practitioners” or “Small Agencies”)
- The purpose is to provide yourself a picture of what your business is up against as you market your core service
Vision and Mission Statements
- It is useful to have Vision and Mission statements that keep you focused on what is important to you
- Vision Statement should describe the “ideal state” of your business; it should be achievable, but also something to strive for
- Mission Statement succinctly states what your business is about, its purpose, the role it plays in the market
Part 2: Assumptions
- It is useful to develop a set of Business Principles that guide how you will conduct your business
- These principles have a direct bearing on your relationships with customers and clients
- The reason to include it under “Assumptions” is because your Business Principles are conditions under which your business operates; as you will see further in this section, you will list other conditions under which your business operates as well
- List things you know about the economy (local, state, regional, national, international – whatever you believe affects your business)
- Include relevant historical facts (e.g., “the U.S. economy fell into recession in 2001”) and how they affect your ability to do business
- Note the impact of past, current, or anticipated economic conditions on your business and the products/services you provide
- List things you know about your personal and/or business financial situation that affect your ability to do business and to grow your business
- Include things like cash flow issues, savings programs, the financial picture as a result of actions or conditions (a recession, recent investments, loan approvals, etc.)
- Reflect financial “realities” about your business (e.g., the need to control expenses, taxes owed, upcoming capital expenditures, expanding payroll, etc.)
- Since so many businesses – large and small – depend on technology (web, e-mail, phone, etc.) today, it is useful to think about how these issues affect your business’s ability to succeed
- Think about upgrades of hardware and software, the impact of growth and expansion on your technological needs, training that will be necessary, etc.
Part 3: Strategic Summary
- List all the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats about your business
- Be honest with yourself; don’t hold anything back or ignore realities
Key Success Factors
- Out of your SWOT Analysis, what are the key factors that will affect the ability of your business to succeed?
- Examples: strong reputation, broad client base, repeat business, unique provider, etc.
Competitive Advantages / Disadvantages
- Create lists of your competitive advantages and disadvantages based on your analysis of everything else up to this point
- What unique advantages does your business have in the marketplace?
- What distinct disadvantages does your business have?
- Be honest and don’t hold back because you will develop strategies based largely on this informatio
- Develop two or three broad Strategic Goals for your business in the next year or the next 3-5 years, depending on the scope of your plan
- Strategic Goals should be “big picture” goals, but they should also be specific enough that you can measure them
- Under each goal, list one to three specific, measurable components
- Example of a Strategic Goal: “Grow Client Base”
- Example of specific, measurable component: “Add at least X new clients by X date”
- Make your goals SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-driven
- Out of your Strategic Goals, list specific actions you will take that will help you achieve them
- Examples: Meet with two new prospective clients per month; Join a professional association to expand my network
- Create a calendar that plots when each tactical activity will occur so you don’t forget to do them
Web writing is all about emotional impact. We’ve already said web writing is a direct selling environment. (WWUP #1) To attract and retain readers, we must get to the point quickly. But the point we get to cannot be intellectual. It must be emotional. When I use the word emotional, I don’t mean the writing should be cheesy or sentimental. I mean it should be emotionally authentic. It should build trust, not violate it.
For example, consider this web copy: “When you buy from Company XYZ, you receive personalized service.” That is obviously an empty promise—dead and wooden. It doesn’t build trust. What if we approached it from the point of view of the customer: “Our service representatives have fans. One customer calls her rep, ‘Mr. Trustworthy’ because he always shows up when she calls. Once, he returned her call while he was getting ready to attend his son’s wedding. Mr. Trustworthy returned her call and made sure her problem was handled.’” Do you see the difference? In just a few words we create emotional impact by relating a success story.
So, how do you create emotional impact? Particularize. Tell a story about satisfied customers. Get real about how you create delighted customers. Deliver that impact.
What if you’re a new business and you don’t have any success stories you can call on? What if you company business process isn’t there yet, generating quality success stories.
Just use business language instead of abstracted, intellectual sales talk.
An example: “Smaller grocery chains are being inadequately serviced by large food marketing organizations. Company XYZ solves that problem.”
Improved: “As far as the large food marketing organizations are concerned, your grocery chain is not even on their radar screen.”
You could argue using “radar screen” is a cliché. Perhaps you don’t like it. My larger point is to suggest you should use language that delivers the emotional impact without beating around the bush. That kind of language creates trust, keeps people reading your web site and ultimately contributes to making a sale.
The most important words on your web site are not the ones you wrote. Here’s my thinking on this and tell me if you don’t agree: The most important reason people do business with an organization after looking at their web site has to do with trust. They believe the organization is presenting itself truthfully. And, of course, they want what the organization is offering. As you may know, the whole issue of trusted relationships on the web is very current, being discussed by security and work collaboration experts. How do you create trust on the web? There are many ways, but in my opinion, the most effective way to create trust is to include customer/client testimonials throughout the web site. They don’t have to be lengthy—just a few sentences will do. Many organizations will have a page devoted to client testimonials. That’s good, but what I’m suggesting is that you sprinkle those testimonials throughout the web site. The welcome page can have rotating testimonials. Every page thereafter should have at least one testimonial towards the bottom of the page. The point is this: You can’t go on any page of that web site without reading at least one testimonial—people who paid you a compliment and are willing to let you use their name on your web site. They’re going to bat for you. And that communicates trust. So think about it: The most important words on your web site are not the ones you wrote. They are the words your clients or customers wrote about you. Do you agree?
Here’s a universal principle that frames the experience of writing for the web: “Form ever follows function.” Those words were first written by Louis Sullivan early in the 20th Century. What does designing a department store or any large public building have to do with writing for the web? And what could an architect who lived so long ago have to say to us about writing web content? Or designing web sites? Everything.
Just as no building architect today would design a building without taking into account how people are going to use it, likewise, no web site architect should ever consider designing a web site without thinking about how visitors are going to use it.
We talk about usability—a word that would have seemed strange to Mr. Sullivan—but aren’t we talking about the form of the web site reflecting the way people use it? And when it comes to writing content, aren’t we likewise trying to make the content as readily available, as comprehensible and effortless to read as possible? I think so. That thought frames everything I know about writing for the web.
So, based on “Form ever follows function,” and the way people use web sites today, let me suggest three thoughts as a guide to web writing: chunk, light, tuna.
Chunk. People don’t read on the web, they scan. Break your story into bite-sized chunks. Make your writing compact and succinct. A few short paragraphs on one page and you’re done. Bullets and subheads improve readability. Keep it simple.
Light. Keep the writing light. Avoid self-serious or ponderous prose. Focus on benefits. Tell how a product or service improves peoples’ lives or adds value. Tackle serious subjects and be real, but do it in a highly readable way.
One example from a white paper I wrote: “Digital asset management systems can generate a healthy ROI, yet few do. Why? Three important reasons: Planning. Planning. Planning.”
Keep it light, but avoid humor which can easily backfire on the web.
Tuna. This is not a reference to a losing Cowboy coach. By tuna, I mean give people substance. Tell people what they want to know: What you’re going to do for them. Give them benefits. Tell how they’re going to feel after they’ve used your service or product. Most importantly, prove it with testimonials from real customers•statements that carry emotional impact.
Write “chunk light tuna,” and you’ll be writing the way people use the web today.If Louis Sullivan were alive, I bet he would agree.
If this is indeed the year of reading more and writing better, we’ve been right on course with David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, and various invaluable advice from other great writers. Now comes John Steinbeck — Pulitzer Prize winner, Nobel laureate, love guru — with six tips on writing, culled from his altogether excellent interview it the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review.
- Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
- Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
- Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.Read full article via brainpickings.org
Are you a deluded writer? Stop! Before you answer that question, let me tell you about Brian Wansink and the bottomless bowl of tomato soup.
Wansink is a scientist who holds the John S. Dyson Endowed Chair at Cornell University where he is Director of the Food and Brand Lab. He’s also the author of the 2006 book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More.
In one of his most famous studies, he rigged up “bottomless” bowls of tomato soup. (Researchers kept the bowls filled by hidden tubes that imperceptibly kept adding more soup while the subjects ate). Wansink then compared the eating habits of people faced with a normal bowl, versus those given a “bottomless” bowl. The results were astonishing.
People who had a normal bowl ate, on average, nine ounces of soup. But people who ate from the rigged bowls averaged 15 ounces — 73 percent more! And most amazingly, the subjects at the self-filling bowls did not rate themselves as any more full than the subjects at the normal bowls.
All of which goes to show, we are terrible judges of ourselves.
This principle applies to our writing, too. Are our carefully thought-out words lucid, moving, and compelling? Or are they boring, self-indulgent, and banal? Who knows? The problem is, we’re not very skilled at analyzing ourselves.
I won’t lie to you. The verb “to lie,” meaning “to recline,” is not the easiest verb in the English language. For that matter, neither is the verb “to lie” meaning “to tell a falsehood.” I sometimes see the present participle of both verbs spelled “lieing.”
Now either you were horrified by the title of this piece and thought Ranly has finally lost it completely, or you have come to accept the misuse of the verb. Is it really so bad? Doesn’t the language change? Shouldn’t we just accept that few people will use the verb correctly?
For more than three decades I have been trying to teach writing and editing, and even though I sometimes doubt that I can teach writing other than to encourage good writing when I see it (“Hey, that’s good. Do some more of that!”), I have thought that I could teach editing. And all I have tried to teach is what some call Standard American Written English.
People speak colorfully and certainly in ways that we would not find acceptable in accepted print publications. I was listening to a local talk show the other day, and an officer of a bank, I think he was the president, was discussing how quickly the new bank had been completed. “If you had drove past here just two weeks ago, you would have saw a lot of work still to do.” Now that’s just great. He may be a helluva banker, but should he speak in public?
Standard American Written English. I’ve been stewing about this “lie” verb for some time now, and then this past week I started reading a packet of articles sent to me by an absolutely outstanding young writer by the name of Justin Heckert. Justin was hired right out of undergraduate J-school here at Mizzou by ESPN The Magazine. Well, he just couldn’t stand it there because they wouldn’t really let him write. So he went to a magazine that would, an outstanding city magazine, Atlanta.
Now I’m reading this wonderful personal story of his, and I come upon this sentence: “The first day of tests I had to lay flat on my back while the doctors drew a sufficient amount of blood to test.” My student wrote that! (His mother is an English teacher.) And the editors, good editors, did not change it. Damn. Well, maybe the battle’s over.
But then I read another piece by Justin, and I came upon this sentence: “… Skip (Caray, the Atlanta Braves announcer) had just been sitting there, at the table, transfixed by all that lay outside the window….” Damn again. They do know the verb! The least they can do is be consistent!
The hospital scene reminds me of a story about a former professor here that is so good it just might be true. He was a fanatic about “lie, lay, lain,” and being around doctors and nurses who regularly told him to “lay back” nearly drove him out of his mind. Well, the story I tell is that he was literally on his deathbed when a nurse told him to “lay back.” He bolted straight up and shouted at the top of his voice, “Lie back!” and he lay back and died.
Another story that’s almost true that I love to tell my students is about my dog, Rosie, who will just look at you if you tell her to “lay down,” but she will recline immediately if you tell her to “lie down.”
My granddaughter was 4 when I asked her what she did with the TV remote. She told me, “I lied it over there.” Seemingly she had heard me lecture enough about the use of “lie” not to ever use the word “lay” in any of its forms. But how do you tell a 4-year-old that “to lie” is intransitive; it cannot have an object. You meant, sweetheart, to say that you “laid” it over there because that’s the past tense of “to lay,” a transitive verb that requires an object. You see transitive verbs do things to things. Intransitive verbs cannot do things to things. You cannot “lie” something.
But neither is the remote “laying” over there. It’s not doing anything to anything. It’s just “lying” there. Is that really so difficult?
If you are a reader who always uses these verbs correctly, I salute you. If you want more explanation, read on.
The past tense of “to lie,” meaning “to recline,” is “lay.” The past participle (we use past participles along with the helping verb “to have” to form the present perfect, past perfect and future perfect tenses) is “lain.” So here’s how it works:
“At midnight I thought I would lie down. I lay there an hour before I turned off the TV. I had lain there another hour before I finally fell asleep. I don’t know how long my puppy was lying beside me.”
Now the past tense of “to lay,” meaning “to place down,” is “laid.” The past participle is also “laid.”
“I always lay the remote next to me on the bed. I’d swear I laid it there last night, but I couldn’t find it. I thought I remembered laying it there. Perhaps I had laid it on the stand by my bed.”
Remember. After I “lay” something down, it’s just “lying” there. It’s not doing anything to anything.
Is the battle worth fighting? Shall we let sleeping dogs lay — or lie?
Or would you rather just email me?
A couple of readers have asked me about making “email” a verb. I’m a little surprised they didn’t ask about taking out the hyphen in email.
Well, as I wrote in my piece about verbyfying nouns, some of our strongest verbs were once nouns. Linguists like to trace when nouns first became used as verbs, and I suppose some words were used as nouns and verbs almost from the beginning.
Take the word “work,” for example. I have no idea. Was it first a noun or a verb?
It certainly didn’t take long for “email” to be used as a verb. At least the form of the word remained the same, and we did not “ize” it. Wouldn’t it be awful if we “emailized” people?
All I know is, one day I made a momentous decision. I decided on the same day that I would never again put a hyphen in “email” and that I would lower-case (notice that verb!) “internet.”
So, OK, “email” me. But for heaven’s sake, don’t “copy” me!
Refined Wisdom: Here’s what I think about making verbs into nouns. Usually, there are so many better, simple words that we can use.
It seems months ago by now (and it is) that, strangely enough, I found myself listening to Condoleezza Rice testifying before the special committee investigating the events surrounding 9/11. Not once, but several times Rice said various people “were tasked” to do something, and I’m quite sure she also said “we were tasking” that at a certain point in time.
Then I read this quote from Richard A. Clarke in The New York Times: “All 56 F.B.I. federal offices were also tasked in late June to go on increased surveillance.”
So, there was a lot of “tasking” going on. So also was there a lot of “verbyfying” nouns, to use the word Edwin Newman coined for the phenomenon. Well, it might have been William Safire.
I looked up the word in Webster’s Third, quite confident “task” was never a verb, but I was wrong again. The first meaning listed is “to tax,” but it says that usage is obsolete. “To impose a task upon,” it says in the second meaning, and then it quotes John Dryden using it that way. The third meaning, also obsolete, is “to reprimand.” And the fourth meaning is “to oppress with great labor.” I was just with a staff of a software company in North Carolina, and a sharp copy editor there defended the use of the word in the passive — “was tasked.” Sounds like cruelty to me.
Well, it does bring up the whole question of turning nouns into verbs. There’s no disputing that many verbs we now use were once nouns (was “progress” first a noun or a verb?), and some would say, what’s the big deal anyway? We have verbs such as “maximize” and “minimize,” so what’s wrong with “parameterizing”?
(I once had a phone conversation with the father of a student whom I had failed in a magazine-editing class. The father assured me that he and his daughter “now had matters parameterized.” I almost told him that I would never have failed her had I known she had been paramaterized.)
Here’s what I think about making verbs into nouns. Usually, there are so many better, simple words that we can use. Even if it takes a few more words to say something, it’s better than appearing pompous or pretentious with overblown, made-up words. In the end, it comes down to clarity.
Why would we want to “utilize” something when we can just “use” it? I like to say that if we don’t stop “utilizing” the English language, we’re going to “finalize” it. I don’t really believe that, but if you or your boss is verbyfying nouns, stop it already.
Let’s rein in reign!
Have you noticed how often you see these two words confused?
Here’s a sentence from Dan Brown’s best-selling The Da Vinci Code: “Chartrand rushed forward, trying to reign in the camerlengo.”
From a sports-page headline: “Walsh might seize reigns as president.” That’s former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, rumored to become president of the 49ers.
From the National Catholic Reporter in a story about Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis magazine: “While Hudson was taking over the reigns at Crisis, Cara Poppas consulted an attorney.”
In scholar John Merrill’s wonderful book, Existential Journalism, in which he describes the existential journalism professor: “He will insist on personalism, not impersonalism; he will encourage diversity in his students, not conformity; he will try to give free reign to creativity, not imitation.”
And in a column in the Columbia Missourian in which Merrill is condemning the “No child left behind” program, he writes: “What we need is an emphasis on ‘No child held back,’ or ‘Give free reigns to the gifted child.’”
I think we should not only rein in “reign,” but we should also rein in “rein.” It’s used so often and so needlessly. Besides, I wonder how many people really understand its roots. Once when a graduate student of mine used “reign” in place of “rein,” he asked me what in the world a rein was.
As a former farm boy whose father still had a team of horses, I think I can describe reins without looking the word up in the dictionary. I can still see those long strips of leather that dad held in his hands to get the horses moving or to get them to turn right or left (“gee” – right, and “haw” – left, he used to shout) and to get them to stop. If the horses were going too fast, he would pull on the reins that went right to the harness over their heads and to the bits in their mouths. He would tighten the reins. If he wanted them to trot, he would loosen the reins (give them free rein?). And if he wanted them to stop, he would pull hard and rein them in.
Granted, the word has also come to mean “a restraining influence, a curb or a check.” But again, it’s so overused, and it’s so often replaced incorrectly with “reigns.”
At least think twice before you use “rein” or “reins” again!
Sorry, Emerson, being consistent is not the hobgoblin of small minds.
Of course, if I have it right, Emerson said, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”
Being consistent is one of my Seven C’s for good writing that I have lectured about for decades. Actually, I developed the Seven C’s for my editing class, and for years I tried to teach students that they need to have a reason to change a writer’s copy. Editors should not change copy out of some whim or because they like their words better than the author’s.
My first class in editing I always wrote in big letters on the board “Editor is God.” (My daughter made me a large and beautiful stained class window with those words in it that hangs here in my study.) I wanted to impress upon the students that they were the final arbiter, the final judge of how copy would appear forever. Writers are a dime a dozen, I would tell them; editors are rare. Writers win prizes; editors remain anonymous. Editors create writers, make them look good, save their butts regularly — and get none of the credit and lots of abuse.
Nevertheless, editors should be able to explain WHY they changed the copy. And that’s why I gave my students seven reasons to change it: To make copy correct, consistent, clear, concise, coherent, complete and creative.
I probably should start in the beginning, but I want to start with the need to be consistent. You need to be consistent for one simple reason: If you aren’t, you look incorrect. You need to be consistent as a writer (and if you aren’t, an editor must see to it that you are) on two levels.
The first level might be called technical. You must be consistent in:
*spelling. How obvious you say. But I regularly find editorial offices in which there are three or four different dictionaries lying around. That’s not a good idea. You should choose one, and that’s for the simple reason that dictionaries sometimes differ in their spelling of words — at least in the preferred spelling of words. And for the sake of being consistent, why not have your staff agree to choose the first spelling of a word. Webster’s III International is a solid final appeal, but a excellent dictionary for most to have is Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th edition, the official dictionary of the Associated Press. And by the way, most of us don’t even know what dictionary is in the spell-check in our computers, and I think it’s true that spell-checks allow more than one spelling. What good is that?
*grammar. Again, how obvious. It is surprising again how few editorial offices have standard books they can refer to for grammatical questions. An excellent, most practical choice is “Working With Words,” by Brooks, Pinson and Gaddy Wilson, published by Bedford/St. Martin’s.
*style. You must be consistent in what you capitalize, what you abbreviate, in how you use numbers, in how you punctuate, and in whole lot of other matters. To do this, you need a stylebook. Most newspapers, magazines and newsletters use the Associated Press style; some use the Chicago Manual of Style; others have their own stylebooks. I’m regularly told by staffs that they use several stylebooks. What nonsense! Having more than one stylebook defeats the purpose of having one. Choose one! That’s difficult enough. And make sure that everyone has a copy within arm’s length.
Of course, your publication may have its own particular set of rules in addition to the stylebook that you adopt. Additional rules, yes, but it’s probably foolish for you to attempt to compile an entire stylebook of your own. Leave that to large publications such as “The New York Times” and “The New Yorker.”
If you are a writer, you need to know the stylebook of the publication for which you are writing. Some formal journals do have some particular rules that they wish to have followed.
The second level of consistency concerns our writing style in a nontechnical sense. Now, please, I don’t want to throttle your creativity. You can do wonderfully bright writing with similes, metaphors, analogies, examples, change of pace, establishing a mood, using voice, etc., and still be consistent in some basic things.
For example, you must in the beginning decide on your approach to a piece. Will you write in the first person “I” or the second person “you” or in the third person? Don’t start writing in the third person, and then half way through or toward the end suddenly insert yourself or suddenly address the reader directly. There’s nothing wrong with a first-person piece — if you can’t easily stay out of the piece. I would avoid, however, the use of “we” because readers don’t know who that “we” is. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, “Save ‘we’ for God, kings and people with tape worms”?
By the way, I like leads, even news leads, that have the word “you” in it. Using “you” forces the writer to get to the WIIFM
(What’s In It For Me?) quickly. Once you begin with “you,” you can stay with it. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to avoid the passive voice of the verb when you do that.
You should be consistent in the use of your verbs. Especially watch the tense of the verb, and, of course, keep those verbs in the active voice. Make your verbs do things to things. Make them transitive; avoid the verb “to be” as much as you can.
Try to establish a tone, a mood, a flavor, and then try to maintain it. Often a piece starts out with a flash and then just peters out. Some happy stories have a somber mood, and worse, some sad stores seem to have a snappy, happy pace and tone. If you are friendly and personal in your opening, stay that way.
So — if you’re a writer, try to be consistent. If you’re an editor, your job is to make the copy consistent both inside the piece itself and with the publication in which it will appear. And more than that, if you are an editor of a publication, you probably want the whole publication to have a consistent look and feel and tone about it. I rather like the word “attitude.” Establish an attitude, and for the most part, stick with it.