Speaking in tongues

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

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.

Autocorrect has been around long before the iPhone.

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”).

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.”

Who, knew?

A matter of style

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

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.

It’s time to sit down and draw up that style guide.

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.

Can you teach kids to love learning?

Seth Godin recently blogged on the subject “What’s high school for?” His suggestions included adding project management, presentation skills and leadership training to the curriculum.

I love Seth’s blog and learn a lot from his insights, but I’m betting he doesn’t have high-school-aged children. Here’s what I want my kids to learn in high school:

  1. How to write a paper. I’m not talking about a research thesis. I’d be happy to see a one-page book report that was cleanly written and properly edited.
  2. Basic organizational skills. The typical teen has 5,000 songs filed and categorized on her iPod. Yet she either forgets to write down her homework assignments, or misplaces the paper she wrote them on.
  3. How not to phone it in. My kids are pretty smart, which means they can get decent grades on papers they write at 2 a.m. the night before they’re due, based on material taken from Wikipedia. I have been unable to convince them that there is an advantage to actually researching a topic and formulating original conclusions about it.
  4. How to answer the phone and/or email. If it’s not a text, it doesn’t get their attention, no matter how many times I point out that old fogies like college admissions people and employers still use the phone.

As for the other skills Seth recommends–to tell you the truth, I’d just as soon hold off on turning them into little consultants. But I heartily concur with his suggestion that we give them “An insatiable desire (and the ability) to learn more.” The question is, how?