And so he was hanged—or was it hung?

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?

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.

Number theories

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:

  1. Spell out numbers under 11, centuries (e.g. the nineteenth) and decades (the Eighties).
  2. 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.”
  3. For numbers over 1 million, use a numeral plus a word. “More than 830 million people speak Mandarin.”
  4. Write out the word “percent” in formal business documents and on the web. Avoid symbols in general: No. 1 is better than #1.
  5. Proper names should be consistent with the entity’s preferred usage: 3M, Big Ten, 50 Cent.

When verbs attack

Sometimes it seems like verbs are taking over the world—or at least, overunning the noun category. I’m creating a list of nouns that have been verbed, for better or worse. What are your favorites (and least favorites)?

The Good: Bookended, headquartered, googled, waffled, texted

The Bad: Incentivized, guested, friended, gifted, conferenced, dialogued, leveraged, tasked

The Ugly: Incested, usagized, sunsetted, podiumed, actioned, impacted, boilerplated

Fix it, quick

These easy-to-avoid errors can ruin an email, resumé or other business document.

  • Font is too big or too small. The best size is generally between 10 and 12. When in doubt, go with 11.
  • Incompatible fonts. Callisto looked great when you formatted your report, but my computer converts it to Times Roman 10—which my middle-aged eyes can’t read.
  • Multiple fonts and/or colors. Simplicity is key to a professional presentation. Emphasize your points (sparingly) with italics or boldface.
  • WTF is CAMCA?  Virtually every acronym needs to be spelled out the first time you use it. Put the abbreviation in parentheses after the name if you plan to mention it again, e.g. Commercial Arbitration and Mediation Center for the Americas (CAMCA). As for WTF, LOL and the rest—never.

Good newsletters don’t make people mad

While we’re on the subject of email newsletters, a few cardinal rules:

  1. Keep email addresses private. Use Bcc: instead of listing readers in the To: field, or risk the wrath of the indecently exposed.
  2. Don’t subscribe anyone without permission. It’s fine to purchase or use existing lists to invite people to subscribe, but unforgivably rude to opt them in.
  3. Check the damn links.  They should work smoothly, without surprises (like huge pdfs that crash people’s computers).
  4. Don’t call it a newsletter if it’s an ad.  I don’t mind promotions if they offer real value. But if the subject line says, “Ten ways to get a bargain on your next vacation,” I’d better not have to buy a book to find out what they are.

Newsletters that stand out in a crowd

Among the dozens of email newsletters competing for my newsletters are like flamingosattention, three stand out. One has spoilers for my favorite TV show; the second lists last-minute airfare deals; the third contains journal-style observations on the author’s life with her differently abled child.

From this unofficial sampling, I’ve derived three reasons that people read newsletters:

  • They provide information of immediate personal interest
  • They have real value (saving money) or fantasy value  (helping me visualize the ideal  vacation, job, house etc.)
  • They are beautifully written, with a compelling narrative

Does your newsletter fall into one of these categories? If not, why would people read it?

It was blown by you

I recently saw this line in a human resources handbook: “A training session on employee harrassment is required to be attended by all staff.” Leaving aside the fact that the company is training its employees to harass each other, this is a nice example of misuse of the passive voice.

As the term suggests, “passive voice” means that something was done to something else. The road was crossed by the chicken. Short people are discriminated against. I am being screwed. Most of us grew to love this construction in high school, when we were too lazy or nervous to commit to precise statements. “It is argued that Mark Twain was the most revolutionary writer of his day” keeps things nice and vague—it’s not even clear if the writer agrees.

Unfortunately, laziness and fear of commitment don’t serve us well in the business world. I can think of only two instances where passive voice is appropriate: to emphasize an object  (The baby was left on the doorstep) or to wiggle out of taking the blame (Errors were numerous in the last newsletter).