I’ve written my share of mission statements. I’ve lauded the “commitment to diversity” at companies where less than ten percent of the managers were diverse (one had a gay, Puerto Rican, female director and counted her three times), and talked up “ongoing initiatives” with no budget, staffing or deliverables. With this in mind, here are my nominees for the emptiest, most irritating phrases in current use.
- Creating an environment of…. Visions of terraria and zoo enclosures come to mind.
- Corporate values/goals. These terms are interchangeable and cancel each other out. For instance, “Our corporate values of inclusion and mutual respect will achieve our corporate goal of $50 million in profits this year—or you’re all fired.”
- The next level. We are afraid to put a number on this because we think it’s going to fail.
- Leverage our strengths. What’s wrong with, “Do more with what we’ve got?”
- Bring it back full circle. Start over without admitting we screwed up.
I admit it—I use too many em dashes. I just—I don’t know—all right, I love them. It’s as if—in some indefinable way—they express the ebb and flow of my thoughts. Which—for some reason—I need to share with you.
Should I curb my enthusiasm for the em dash? Sometimes I’m just being lazy; where colons, semicolons or commas are appropriate, they should be used instead. When I’m blithering (as above) or repeating myself, they should be slashed without mercy.
But occasionally—where emphasis is needed—I think they have a place in business writing. Do you?
My thoughts on hyphens prompted an outpouring of reader complaints about another ubiquitous punctuation mark: the exclamation point.
Back in my advertising days, I had a creative director who used to say (with a fruity, self-satisfied chuckle), “Using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” Like much of his work, this statement was unoriginal; numerous sources attribute it to F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it’s true that there’s something self-serving about the bang character. Derived from the Latin (“note of admiration”), it was originally used to express joy or wonderment. From here it was a quick leap to astonishment in the negative sense— “That’s the biggest carbuncle I’ve ever seen!”—sarcasm, and warning.
The current trend toward overusage might have started with Tom Wolfe, who (if Trivial Pursuit is to be believed) employed 2,343 of them in his blockbuster Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s gotten a huge boost from email and text messaging, where multiple bangs are routinely used to turn up the volume. What do you think—it it too much? How can we stem the tide?
Once sprinkled sparingly, like saffron, on the risotto of business language, hyphens are now thrown around like handfuls of coarse salt. The major style guides agree that they should link two or more words that serve as adjectives modifying the same noun—but only if the context is unclear. Yet we continue to hyphenate “real-estate agent,” “foreign-exchange rate” and $14-billion-dollar sale” against all logic and reason.
It’s time to stop the madness. Here’s where I think hyphen use is appropriate:
- To avoid double letters: semi-interested, pre-existing
- At the end of a word to avoid repetition: “First- and second- place trophies were awarded at rinkside.”
- To break words at the end of a line
- In cases where they are (really) essential for clarity: “The line re-formed across the street.”
Can we delete them otherwise? What do you think?
Every organization now has a social media policy, and most of them boil down to the same thing: Don’t be an idiot. For some reason, companies feel compelled to spell out every form that idiocy might take. IBM’s guidelines include items like “don’t pick fights” and “don’t pretend to be someone else;” Kodak suggests you “know what you are talking about.” Coca Cola goes even further, specifying that “it’s not okay to violate other people’s rights.”
It’s as if, instead of saying the dress code is business casual, companies are telling their employees to wear pants. Does the nature of social media somehow lead to corporate overthinking?
Here’s an elegant distinction: The word “hanged” refers specifically to a form of execution, while “hung” is used for any object suspended from above. The guilty man is hanged; the curtains are hung.
Other frequently confused terms include connote (imply) and denote (refer to something specifically); inflammable and flammable (both meaning easy to set on fire) and their opposite, nonflammable; founder (fail utterly, as in a sinking ship) and flounder (blunder); and historic (important in history) and historical (anything from the past). Can you think of others?
I am amazed by the number of companies and publications that don’t know their own names. If a full-blown style guide is too much to hope for, how about a simple naming convention?
Bingham does it right. The law firm’s official name is Bingham McCutchen LLP, but every biography, press release, brochure and web page refers to it as Bingham. Clearly there was a strongly worded memo from the top, and people now know their jobs depend on using the right name.
Contrast this with most other companies, ranging from Deloitte (to Touche or not to Touche?) to Exxon Mobil (ExxonMobil, The Exxon Mobil Corporation). Even The New York Times can’t seem to decide what to do with its “The”—now you see it, now you don’t.
As anyone who works at a law firm knows, employees who do not practice law are known as “non-lawyers” or “non-legal staff.” I can’t think of another industry that insults its support staff quite so thoroughly. Imagine if nurses and medical technicians were called “non-doctors?” Try referring to flight attendants as “non-pilots” or bank tellers as “non-bankers” and see how they respond.
Can you think of other unacceptable “terms of employment?”
Lily Tomlin once said, “I worry that the person who thought up Muzak may be thinking up something else.” I’m willing to bet they’re the force behind the following “innovations” on business websites:
- Auto-start music or video. Nothing makes me hit the back key quicker than a video starting up—sound and all—as soon as I land on a page. The same goes for soundtracks.
- Splash intro pages. Other than giving the designer a place to get his ya-yas out, what purpose do these serve?
- Links that lead to .pdf files. Even if I cared about your annual report, my netbook would take ten minutes to load it.
- Under construction pages. Either hide the page or finish constructing it. If you don’t have time to write it yourself, call me (973.444.4202).
- Forms that re-set. Don’t make me start over because I’ve left something out, or I will seek out your competition just to annoy you.
- Crappy “About Us” descriptions. This section is the Web equivalent of speed dating—you have 15 seconds to make me love you. If you can’t say something interesting, don’t bother.
There’s no single, correct way to show numbers in business writing. The only “rule” is to be consistent: $1 million, $1,000,000 and a million dollars should never appear in the same document.
That said, most writers rely on a combination of the AP Stylebook (or The Economist Style Guide if you write for international audiences) and common sense. Here are guidelines:
- Spell out numbers under 11, centuries (e.g. the nineteenth) and decades (the Eighties).
- Don’t start a sentence with a numeral. “Eleven geese fell from the sky,” not “11 geese.” Try not to begin with a number at all: “Jane saw 11 geese falling from the sky.”
- For numbers over 1 million, use a numeral plus a word. “More than 830 million people speak Mandarin.”
- Write out the word “percent” in formal business documents and on the web. Avoid symbols in general: No. 1 is better than #1.
- Proper names should be consistent with the entity’s preferred usage: 3M, Big Ten, 50 Cent.