December 8, 2010

Trite and Overused Words Weigh Down Your Writing

Recently, you could have seen these two bits of corporate miscommunication online:
1. Monetizing your business”Go Green”  
2.

Bafflegab

Corporate jibberish

Image of person being monetized

We know corporate-speak as language that is bland, undifferentiated, and hard to read with its meaning obscured by jargon, waffle, hype, verbiage, legalese and conventionality. Other fields and professions use this same kind of language that at least hinders communication and at worst turns off readers. The infamous Seth Godin recently suggested: Don’t hide behind waffling terms that don’t mean anything.

I started collecting examples of words like monetize that are not standard English or have become trite or are overused or whose meanings are no longer so clear. I am calling for their retirement, Read why here.

This list of more than 500 words and phrases has now been posted to this website as the Bathetic Word List. Some of the words are linked to commentaries that favor the discontinuance of the use of the words.

I’d like to keep building up the list, so I am holding a contest to encourage your contributions. The contest details are here. 

Please help me make people aware of the list and contest.

December 1, 2010

Ya got that right

This is a question to be voted on in late 2011, subject to any big change in our provincial government.

Will you offer a rewite?

“Are you in favour of extinguishing the HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) and reinstating the PST (Provincial Sales Tax) in conjunction with the GST (Goods and Services Tax)?” Yes/No

http://www2.news.gov.bc.ca/news_releases_2009-2013/2010AG0027-001402.htm

October 13, 2010

The fog in my head vs the Fog Index

I just received an email solicitation from a business that I have allowed to send me these. I read it and thought my mind had wondered in 3 short lines because I was in a fog.
Here is the only full sentence:

Do you need a 1-Day priority support, an early access to betas and forthcoming features, goodies and a VIP status with guaranteed commitment to your organization on any dashboarding project?

The words are not that strange, so what is the problem. The only word that might be considered jargon these days is dashboarding. Beta might be inappropriate for a message to the general public, but I won’t complain about it here. So I ran the sentence through the test at Check Test Readability, just as a first-stage filter.

So what is the problem or problems?

The sentence has 31 words (a few too many even for skilled readers) with an average of 1.77 syllables per word (pretty good by that measure alone). The sentence scores 25.30 out of 100 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scale. The text score indicates the is not clear and easy reading–confirming my personal experience.

These are the other results:

Readability Formula U.S Grade Level

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 17.40

Gunning-Fog Score 20.10

Coleman-Liau Index 13.80

SMOG Index 14.10

Automated Readability Index 17.80

Average Grade Level 16.64

Break up the sentence

I quickly broke the sentence apart and made a list. Like this:

Do you need help and a VIP status on any dashboarding project?

You get our guaranteed commitment to your organization with:

  • 1-Day priority support,
  • early access to betas and forthcoming features, and
  • other goodies.

Readability Formula U.S. Grade Level

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 11.50

Gunning-Fog Score 13.90

Coleman-Liau Index 13.50

SMOG Index 10.10

Automated Readability Index 10.70

Average Grade Level 11.94

The tool reported that this text

  1. gets a 44 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scale (better, maybe not good enough)
  2. contains 2 sentences, with 35 words (17.50 per sentence)
  3. no change in syllables per word.

Tackling vocabulary

So I changed it a little more. Google, on an out-of-date link, defines dashboarding: Presentation of data through graphical interfaces modeled ad hoc. Not a quick and easy substitution, so let’s try social media and real-time Web.

My third attempt was:

Do you need help on any social media or real-time Web project?

You get VIP service and our guaranteed commitment to your organization with:

- one-day priority support
- early access to new features or versions
- other goodies.

These changes offer a little improvement. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score is now 51.70 and the average words per sentence is 19.

Readability Formula U.S. Grade Level
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level  10.80
Gunning-Fog Score  12.90
Coleman-Liau Index  11.60
SMOG Index   9.20
Automated Readability Index (Wikipedia) 10.00
Average Grade Level 10.90

We could go further and even try this version out on a few readers, but for now I am satisfied with about a 50% reduction in confusion.

September 4, 2010

Change is certain, and often quick

I inherited a tattered cookbook from my grandmother, a Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook from 1950. When I turned to it for a carrot cake recipe, there was none. So I checked for one in a 1990s cookbook I inherited from my father. This book started off the entry with, “Carrot cake is as American as apple pie”. Wow, what a big cultural change in a short period of time.

It seemed to me a more rapid adoption than the slow change in language to gender-free titles or the adoption of the use of the singular they pronoun.

Take the Rainbow
Rainbow over Vancouver Island

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, I enjoyed have out-of-town visitors to show around my city. I used those opportunities to visit a little shop that sold only rainbow items. The emotional connection that rainbows evinced at that time was joy.

The native peoples of the Andes had a different association which was expressed by using a rainbow of colors in their national symbol, the Wiphala, which is used as a square flag.

Wiphala Diagonal Wiphala

Some of these are made up of 7 bars of color while others are 7 x7 squares with the colors running diagonally. Some of their people want to avoid creating confusion in their international diplomacy about their flag’s meaning by adopting the diagonal format generally. See Wikipedia.

You know why, right?
There is now a mental association between gay and rainbow.

The rainbow may now become a symbol for the struggle for equal human rights. Anyway, as writers, editors, and designers, we need to check out the current interpretations of symbols we choose to use in communicating meaning.

Investigate Change in Meanings
To investigate new words that don’t even appear in a dictionary, I use UrbanDictionary.com. Rainbow has 57 new associations.

I was hoping I could find a visual thesaurus or visual dictionary that would be of assistance in this quest but I have not so far. They seem concerned with word labels not psychosocial meanings. For example:

Visible light Electromagnetic radiation that is perceived by the human eye and ranges from red to violet.

visible light spectrum

So, do check on alternative uses of the words and symbols you choose–to make sure you will communicate effectively.

December 22, 2007

Beware the AutoAntonym

Today’s post is inspired by a recent Word of the Day from dictionary.com

Word of the Day Archive
Wednesday December 19, 2007

discursive \dis-KUR-siv\, adjective:
1. Passing from one topic to another; ranging over a wide field; digressive; rambling.
2. Utilizing, marked by, or based on analytical reasoning — contrasted with intuitive.

Discursive
comes from Latin discurrere, “to run in different directions, to run about, to run to and fro,” from dis-, “apart, in different directions” + currere, “to run.”

Wikipedia

A word that can be used, depending on the circumstance, to mean both of two opposite concepts.

Sanctions are frequently called for on the politcial stage and in the law. Sanction is one of those duplicitous words– it can can mean both reward and punishment.

This is a type of word to avoid. You cannot count on you reader giving the same interpretation to the circumstances that you do. So you cannot be sure your meaning will be understood. Far better to choose a simpler word.

February 5, 2007

Advice for students: Beware of the saurus

Michael Leddy teaches college English and blogs at Orange Crate Art but today he has a post at LifeHack.org; use the link in the title above.

This caught my attention since I had been thinking about the very issue.

From my perspective, the issue is: what use is a thesaurus when we are trying to simplify or clarify our writing?

I think it depends on your level of writing skill or perhaps your understanding of the topic you are writing about…

If you turn to the thesaurus just to spice it up, do not bother. Eschew elegant variation, as Fowler says.

If you use the thesaurus to find the word with just the right tone and subtlety of meaning, then go forth and search.

But if you are tying to simplify your language, just use the dictionary. One of the words used to define the word you started with will probably do the job. Or it will lead you to check its own definition…

Do read the LifeHack article today.