Saying it with a bang

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?

Too much of a good thing

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?

A four-word social media policy

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?

What’s your name, little girl

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?”

Strike down the music

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Splash intro pages.  Other than giving the designer a place to get his ya-yas out, what purpose do these serve?
  3. Links that lead to .pdf files. Even if I cared about your annual report, my netbook would take ten minutes to load it.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.