Sorry seems to be the hardest word

What do you do when you screw up at work? The obvious answer is to apologize. Often the apology is communicated via email—for instance, when people are in different locations, it’s late at night, or they really don’t want to see your face right now. Here’s how to write an “I’m sorry” you won’t have to apologize for.

  1. Never ruin an apology with an excuse. Ben Franklin’s advice still holds true. If you did something wrong, just man up and say the “s” word.
  2. Don’t go over the top. Flagellating yourself for every little error is self-indulgent and immature. Start with a quick apology and proceed to Step 3.
  3. Fix the problem. Offer concrete suggestions that will get the issue off the other person’s plate. If there are several possible solutions, suggest the one that’s easiest for them.
  4. Give it a time frame. “I’ll get to it as soon as I can” isn’t acceptable in this case. “I should have this resolved by tomorrow at the latest” is better.

How else can you make things right?

Know thy market

I’m not in the habit of trashing other writers. But I recently saw a list of writing tips on a copywriter’s website that made me wonder how some people stay in business.

This (by his own account, very successful) writer saved the most important tip for last: “Don’t worry about correct English.” He gave the word “orientated” as an example: “Okay, technically, the word is ‘oriented’. But so what? You certainly know what it means when a business says it is ‘service-orientated’, right? I make no apology in using it, and happen to like it quite a bit.”

After I finished being appalled—“I make no apology in using it?” Really?—I gave this statement some serious thought. Judging from his client list, this guy targets rural small business owners. Their readers, in turn, include plenty of people who use the word “orientating” (along with “irregardless” and “analyzation”) and don’t want to feel like idiots for doing so.

In addition to  what he calls “Plain-English Writing for Real People,” this writer offers reassurance that the way his clients speak and think is good enough. So even though I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than read his work samples, I can see why people hire him.

As if things weren’t confusing enough

There’s no official name for the group of words that are their own opposites—I’ve seen them called Janus words, contronyms and antagonyms. Whatever the name, it’s fun to speculate on how they developed. Examples:

Sanction. Allow/boycott
Snap. Break into pieces/fasten together
Stem. Originate/cut off
Anxious. Anticipate eagerly/await with dread
Screen. Conceal/display
Custom. Usual/special
Bolt. Secure/run away


The idea that it’s better to be succinct dates back at least as far as Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad.

More recently, a high school senior made headlines for his response to a college application question asking students to discuss their favorite word. His essay—which earned him admission to the University of Virginia—read, “My favorite word is Brevity. It’s concise.”

The admissions officer who received this gem, perhaps on a day when she was feeling nauseous from slogging through the huge stack of applications lauding “Originality” and “Motivation,” can be forgiven for giving it the thumbs up. Similarly, colleagues and clients who receive hundreds of emails each day will be grateful if you keep it brief.

More good terms gone bad

Thanks to all the readers who got in the game. I’m guilty of using quite a few of these:

Out of the box thinking. There’s no solution, but it will be fun to watch you kill yourself looking for one. (Jennifer Howald)

It’s all good. I’m sorry, but it’s your problem.  (Jennie Livingston)

Just sayin’. Just weaseling out of confrontation. (Amy Cassedy Lewis)

Politically correct. Insert eye-roll here. (Jeremy Epstein)

Bad for morale

The people (you know it was a committee) who dreamed up “morale booster” probably had their employees’ best interests at heart. Yet it’s come to connote “too little, too late,” “PR opportunity for management,” and a whole lot of other negatives.

Other good terms gone bad include:

Creating synergy. One of a “grab-bag of phrases that fill in for actual ideas, goals or know-how,” says reader Alba Brunetti.

Work with me. “Lower your rates to fit my wee budget.” (Jenna Schnuer)

Operational excellence. “Layoffs and massive budget-cutting” (Sarah Maxim). Used to be called streamlining or rightsizing.

Teachable moment. “You fucked up.” (Sophia Dembling)

Please add to the list!

Enough with the cannibalism

There’s something offensive about the idea of “eating Chinese” or “eating Indian.” We’re talking about food here, right?  Let’s use that extra word to clarify what we’re eating.

Similarly, referring to groups of people as “the blind,” “the deaf” or “the disabled” literally defines them by their limitations. Assuming their disabilities are relevant to the conversation, it’s just as easy to say “blind children” or “people with disabilities.” This is known as people-first language; it emphasizes the person instead of the disability. Seems like common sense to me.

Corporate definitions, part 1

I’ve started collecting these. Would love to hear yours.

  1. Expert. Someone from out of town.
  2. Guru (also rockstar, ninja, wizard). Advisor with no real credentials.
  3. Convergence. We posted the article on Facebook and linked the Facebook page to Twitter.
  4. Crowdsourced. Vetted by our friends, and maybe the people we ride the train with.
  5. Human business. Two-year-olds do this on the potty.

Mission statement fail

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.

  1. Creating an environment of…. Visions of terraria and zoo enclosures come to mind.
  2. 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.”
  3. The next level. We are afraid to put a number on this because we think it’s going to fail.
  4. Leverage our strengths. What’s wrong with, “Do more with what we’ve got?”
  5. Bring it back full circle. Start over without admitting we screwed up.

I must dash

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?