A matter of style

Every company needs a style guide. And everyone employed by the company needs to know about it.

As the name implies, a style guide is a compendium of rules for language usage at a particular organization. It can (and should) include everything from the correct spelling of the company name to guidelines for appropriate descriptions of minority group members.

I’ve worked at publications that create their own guides from scratch, sometimes running 200 pages or more. But most places do just fine with an existing style guide supplemented by a list of exceptions and words specific to the organization.

In the United States, the most popular guides are the Associated Press Stylebook, favored by journalists and other language-forward types, and the more traditional Chicago Manual of Style. If you write for an international audience, check out The Economist Style Book, which offers a handy section on Americanisms and has the added advantage of being free.

Whichever guide you choose, your company should have a frequently updated, regularly circulated list of addenda to make sure all employees—especially those responsible for external communications—are on the same page.  I’ve been called in to compile these lists, often after some publicly embarrassing incident, and I can tell you that employees desperately need them.

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?

Capital punishment

It’s Saturday evening and I had a glass of wine before I wrote this, so I have to share: God, I hate extraneous capital letters. They smack of self-important posturing and unearned respect. People who use them seem to think they add weight and importance, much as the use of the third person does for the Queen. But the truth is that they’re just annoying.

Law firms are major offenders, especially those that refer to themselves as “The Firm.” Why is your firm “The Firm” while Weedy, Footsore & Dank LLP is not? Or is every firm “The Firm?” What about proper names that include those two words, like the John Grisham novel and the San Francisco boutique?

Here are the rules, people: A person’s title is capitalized when it precedes his or her name and is therefore seen as part of the name—Judge Judy, President Barroso. Further references to the person holding the title appear in lowercase: the judge, the president.

The name of a group is capitalized when it is the full name: the Department of Bloodsucking Bottomfeeders. Further references are lowercased: the department.

Which means that Backbite, Snivel and Drone is a firm, not The Firm. You’re welcome.

Speaking in tongues

If you want a great name for something, ask a linguist. One of my favorite sites is Language Log, where the following terms are in daily use.

Snowclones. Variations on popular phrases. When Watson wiped the floor with the humans on Jeopardy, Ken Jennings snowcloned The Simpsons by cracking, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.” Other examples include “I’m a doctor, not a _______” and “The _______ from hell.”

The Cupertino Effect occurs when computer spell checkers substitute the wrong word (and copy editors don’t catch it); it was coined by European journalists who kept replacing “cooperation” with “cooperatino.”

Crash Blossoms were named for a headline about a musician whose career prospered after her parents died: “Violinist Linked to Air Crash Blossoms.” They can be ambiguous (“Hanging Meat Causes Stir in South St. Louis”) or just plain hilarious (“Man Accused of Killing Lawyer Gets New Attorney”). They even have their own website.

Mountweasel is the official name for the cartographer’s trick of including fake locations to protect map copyrights. When I start a band, I will name it The Mountweasels.

Finally, ace copy editor Carol Fisher Staller drew my attention to Shatner Commas, which she described as “oddly placed commas that don’t serve any actual purpose, but make it look like you should pause, as William Shatner does when delivering lines.”

Gotta, love it.

I write, ergo I misuse Latin

The use of Latin is virtually unavoidable for business writers, especially in the legal industry. The Romans developed the first written system of law, and lawyers—never quick to innovate—have yet to update their terminology.

Although a few Latin terms can add gravitas to your presentation, anything more smacks of pretension. Here are common examples along with guidelines for proper use.

  • E.g. is short for exempli gratia (“for example”). Use periods after each letter.
  • Et al. (et alia, “and others”) should be punctuated only after the second word—the first is not an abbreviation.
  • I.e. (id est, “that is”) precedes a clarification. It’s frequently confused with e.g., which introduces  examples.
  • N.B. (nota bene,“note well”) can almost always be replaced by the words “Note that….”
  • Re is short for in re (“in the matter of”). Email headers to the contrary, it does not mean “reply.”
  • Viz. is an abbreviation of videlicet (“namely”).  Often—and understandably—confused with e.g., it precedes a list within a larger class: “Three species of apes lived in the monkey house, viz. chimpanzees, gorillas and gibbons.”

Sometimes bad writing is good

I think we’ve established that I’m a writing snob, grammarian from hell, bitch in the next cubicle—whatever you want to call it. To quote a Facebook group I was recently invited to join, “I judge you when you confuse their and they’re.”

But there are situations where formally correct writing isn’t necessary or even desirable. One example is when you’re talking exclusively to peers. The associates’ newsletter, written by associates for associates, will come off as stuffy if it refers to “Mr. Fuster’s performance on the field” at the company softball game. A group text to IT employees under the age of 25 didn’t ruffle any feathers when it began, “Imma reserve the conf room for the 3 pm.”

There are two rules to keep in mind when writing informally. First, be appropriate; that “Imma” would look ridiculous to most people over the age of 35. Second, err on the side of formality, especially if you have a tendency to “joke” with terms that could be considered offensive. A memo addressed to “Hos and bros,” meant only for members of a tightly knit sales department, resulted in the writer getting fired when it was forwarded to the CEO.

Which brings up another point: assume your message will get forwarded.  And be ready to explain yourself when it does.

When it comes to words, choose wisely

I’ve always loved the word “mellifluous.” It’s a lovely example of onomatopoeia—words that suggest or imitate the thing they are describing.  On the other hand, I physically itch when someone says “chafe.” It’s far more irritating than, say, “irritating.”

Since our goal is to influence our readers, corporate writers need to be especially sensitive to word choice. I recently saw a job search letter in which the applicant described her work as “superior.” The word gave me a mental image of the woman looking down her nose at her colleagues. The same applicant wrote that she had a “chronic” interest in magazine writing. She would have been better off with “continuing” (although the urge to write does sometimes feel like a disease).

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.

I shot an elephant in my pajamas

Few grammatical errors cause more unintended hilarity than misplaced modifiers. A few examples:

The speaker recalled his revelation in the elevator.

We saw several iguanas at the conference in San Juan.

The CEO offered him a job at the strip club.

Used correctly, modifiers add detail and color to your writing. Just don’t spread them around—keep them close to the thing they are modifying.

How are your rewrite skills?

I recently stumbled across the following paragraph (edited to protect the guilty) on a corporate website. It’s 40 words; can you rewrite it to 20 or less?

“We firmly believe that transparency and ongoing partnerships are key drivers toward finding long-term, sustainable solutions to global challenges. To this end, we maintain relationships with key  stakeholders including government officials, politicians, regulatory authorities, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations.”