Let’s get figurative

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

An idiom is a group of words which, taken together, have a figurative meaning. The English language contains thousands of them, and they drive foreign speakers to despair: “Why would I watch my back, or keep my eyes peeled?” asks one student plaintively on UsingEnglish.com.

Regional idioms even flummox native speakers. “Happy as Larry,” “more front than Brighton” and “man on the Clapham omnibus” are three that stymie me.

Are you overwhelmed by idioms?

You may not even know you’re using them until it’s too late. Here are a few that have made their way into my recent emails:

  • Back burner (I am embarrassed to say I verbed this: “Let’s back burner the annual report until budgets are approved.”)
  • Bells and whistles
  • Bend over backwards (or the more colorful “bend over and kiss your ass goodbye”)
  • Between a rock and a hard place
  • Get down to brass tacks
  • Loose cannon
  • Monday morning quarterback
  • No strings attached
  • Piece of cake
  • Pumped up
  • Reinvent the wheel
  • Start the ball rolling
  • Throw money at it

I’m also partial to our animal friends: dark horses, ugly ducklings, snakes in the grass, and pearls before swine. And let’s not forget the sports world, where team players huddle up before taking the ball and running with it.

Should we banish idioms from business writing? Sometimes they add a welcome bit of humanity to emails or presentations. In business, as elsewhere, it’s nice to make people smile.

That said, too much reliance on idioms can label you as uncreative at best, boorish or provincial at worse. Here are some guidelines for business usage:

  1. Avoid outright clichés. When a term is overused, people gloss over it (and you). Terms like “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” “hit the nail on the head” and “look a gift horse in the mouth” are so familiar they no longer mean anything.
  2. Some terms are better in writing. If you look me in the eye and tell me you’re a “self starter” or “good for the long haul,” I’m liable to laugh. But I’ll buy that language (so to speak) in correspondence.
  3. Consider your audience. It goes without saying that idioms are confusing for non-English speakers. But British, Australian and American writers use widely different terms, as well. I’m still scratching my head over “gone pear-shaped,” “up sticks” and “one over the eight.” (Note: I also find many U.S. regional idioms confusing. What the heck is “chopping in tall cotton?”)
  4. Don’t get personal. No matter how clever they may sound, you’re in line for a lawsuit if you use idioms to describe or criticize other professionals. Your boss may be “dumber than a bag of hair” or “crazy as a peach orchard boar,” but you need to keep those evaluations to yourself.

Finally, remember that one person’s idiom is another’s idiocy. I’m a fan of playful language, even in professional settings, so I will find it charming if you say a keynote speaker is “peeing on my leg, but it’s warm and it feels good.” Just keep it out of the company newsletter.

Less bang, more buck

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

Back in my advertising days, I had a creative director who used to say (with a 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 what copy editors call the bang character.

It’s a sign.

Derived from the Latin (“note of admiration”), exclamation points were originally used to express joy or wonderment. From here it was a quick leap to astonishment in the negative sense—”That’s the biggest wart I’ve ever seen!”—as well as to sarcasm and warnings.

The recent trend toward overuse 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.

In response, editors have begun cautioning writers to use exclamation points sparingly, if at all. “When I was at Conde Nast, an editor told me I was allowed one exclamation point a year. I’ve gone on to make that demand of anyone who contributes to our site,” says Susan Farewell, editor of FarewellTravels.com.

“Good writers convey tone and emphasis through their words, not their punctuation,” agrees Richard Altman. “As a public relations writer, I have to be especially careful not to overhype my clients or I’ll lose credibility.”

It’s important to remember that exclamation points express emotion; they’re the written equivalent of a raised voice. How emotional do you want your writing to be? People who get excited about every little thing are perceived as flighty and unprofessional, and those who never show sparks seem dull and plodding.

Here are sensible guidelines for the use of exclamation points in business:

  1. Use sparingly. “Overuse pretty much renders exclamation marks useless,” says marketing writer Amy Goodfellow Wagner. “They’re supposed to add punch, but sprinkling them too liberally dilutes the intended effect.” This is especially true when the preceding statement is positive. “I can’t wait to see the website” or “It was a pleasure meeting you” sound enthusiastic enough without gilding the lily. There’s one exception to this rule: Using certain exclamatory words without an exclamation point can sound sarcastic or derisive. Compare “Well, that’s fabulous.” with “Well, that’s fabulous!”
  2. One is enough. Multiple exclamation points suggest that you are really worked up—they’re the verbal equivalent of hitting someone over the head. The result is annoying at best and toxic at worst. Statements like, “I can’t believe your team missed the deadline!!!” signal the end of professional discourse.
  3. Don’t combine with other punctuation marksEvery now and then, someone suggests putting an exclamation point next to a question mark to create the graphic equivalent of “WTF.”  It’s even got a name: the interrobang. Like WTF and its close relative LMAO, it doesn’t belong in business writing.
  4. Consider the context. The more casual the form of communication—text messages, friendly emails and blog posts—the more flexible your writing can be. Keep it formal for proposals, company memos and correspondence that’s strictly business.
  5.  Get personal. Sometimes it’s appropriate to exhibit a personal interest—say, when a coworker has a baby or gets an award. “Exclamation points communicate emotions that we normally rely on vocal intonations or facial expressions to convey,” says Elaine Van S. Carmichael, president of Economic Stewardship.
  6. Share your enthusiasm. As long as they’re sincerely meant, very few people would object to the use of exclamation points in the following statements: “Great job!” “You’re amazing!” “Well done!” In this context, they’re the equivalent of a round of applause—something we could all use more of.

Fight flab(by writing)

Helena Rubenstein famously said, “There no ugly women, just lazy ones.” The same applies to writing.

The worst work I’ve seen isn’t poorly written–it’s lazy. Language is overly general and stuffed with cliches. Sentence structure is juvenile and/or repetitive.

Here’s an example: “Higman’s Hideout offers fine wines and good food at prices that won’t break the bank. Higman’s has everything you need for a memorable night out.”

This is the literary equivalent of a beer belly: flabby and unappealing. Yet a couple of authentic details–the kind you’d know if, say, you’d been to Higman’s–would turn it around.

Editor etiquette

When you critique other people’s work, it’s hard not to compare what you’re reading to what you would have done. “He should have started with a quote,” you think, shaking your head. Or “Oh God, not the passive voice!”

This attitude will not make you popular with your colleagues. More to the point, it doesn’t serve the project.

If the writer is guilty of poor grammar or word choice, awkward phrasing or other laziness, you need to call him on it. But before you do, think about what’s really bothering you. Is it the way he writes? Or the fact that he doesn’t write like you?

When the writer does make a mistake, your criticism should be constructive. Scrawling “AWK” all over the piece won’t help. Neither will rewriting it–he’ll be insulted and you’ll be angry that you had to spend so much time on someone else’s work. Try to offer concrete suggestions (“rephrase as an active statement,” “eliminate repetition”) and vent your frustration somewhere other than on the page.

Over and above

One error that scalds my eyeballs is the confusion of “above” and “more than.”  Here’s the rule: “Above” implies a relationship between objects, while “more than” refers to numerical comparisons. So “the UFO hovered above the Chrysler Building” but “the event raised more than $50,000.”

And what about “over?” William Safire has argued that it should never be used with numbers, but most major style guides beg to differ. The best advice comes from the Associated Press: “Use whichever term sounds best.”

In praise of recycling

I keep a folder called “Templates” on my desktop. Whenever I write a proposal, create a spreadsheet, or send a query letter that contains language I may want to use again, I save a copy into it.

Some of the pieces are dated. But over the years, this practice has saved me countless hours of writing time.

What are your best time-saving tips?

The Idiom’s Guide

An idiom is a group of words which, taken together, have a figurative meaning. The English language contains thousands of them, and they drive foreign speakers to despair: “How can I watch my back, or pay through the nose?” asks one student plaintively on UsingEnglish.com.

Even native speakers are flummoxed by regional idioms. “Happy as Larry,” “more front than Brighton” and  “man on the Clapham omnibus” are three that have stymied me.

While it’s best to leave idioms out of business writing altogether, you may not even know you’re using them. Here are a few that have made their way into my recent emails:

  • Back burner
  • Bells and whistles
  • Bend over backwards
  • Between a rock and a hard place
  • Get the ball rolling
  • Jump the shark
  • Monday morning quarterback
  • Reinvent the wheel

Which idioms bother you most?

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.