Category Archives: Writing With Style

Jargon or Plain English? Weigh in.

A while back, wrapping up a conference call, I told the other meeting participants I would “ping” someone after the meeting. I immediately felt foolish.

Pinging someone is one of those buzzwords I had heard often, but never used. Originally it was a technical computer term — to ping someone’s IP address to check an Internet connection. Now it’s a generic term for e-mailing or IMing or texting someone — “I’ll ping Erika after the meeting and let her know what you need.” I could have said, “I’ll e-mail Erika” or “I’ll call Erika,” or simply, “I’ll let Erika know.” Instead, I pinged her.

I doubt the other guys gave it a second thought, but jargon is one of those things that writers are taught to be acutely aware of. Particularly with this client, who has a whole initiative around what they call “Straight Talk” and what has been around for years as the Plain English movement. Basically, it’s the idea that you simplify writing, removing complexity (like legalese — the party of the first part, and all that) and often meaningless jargon (business-speak like bandwidth, net-net, leverage, value-added) to write more clearly.

It’s true, particularly in Marketing, that you can do an awful lot of writing that says nothing (it’s a lot like blogging). Not doing it is hard because it forces you to think about what you really mean and demands a deeper understanding of the subject. Frequently, I don’t have that deep understanding, nor do I always need it. I just need to bang out something that sounds semi-intelligent and let the SMEs sort it out. When they insert their knowledge, I can go back and “plain up” the language.

People talk to each other in terms they understand. In business, everyone knows what you mean by the bottom line, by scope creep, by taking something offline. It really was OK that I pinged someone, even though I felt hesitant because I’d never put it that way before. I just wanted to fit in (sniff) — and using the common language does that. It’s saying what sounds and feels right for the audience and gets your point across.

In other (better) words: When in Rome…

After many years and many meetings, I’m comfortable in that business world. But many of my business clients — even though their clients are businesspeople as well — are uncomfortable using that sort of language in marketing materials, even though they talk to clients that way in person.

I’m torn: Clearly some informal terms are inappropriate for formal business writing. (A few years ago, a game even sprung up to make fun of the way the business world talks — Meeting Bingo or Bullshit Bingo. You can be sure “ping” is on the newest release.) But at times, I think “speaking the language,” whether jargon or not, is just fine. It’s part of the business culture, the lingua franca. Every profession has its way of talking, whether medical or construction or manufacturing or retail. (Or writing…SMEs [smees] = subject matter experts. Writers have lingo too.)

Isn’t Plain English all about writing in terms the audience understands?

What’s your take? Answer the poll to weigh in.

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Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves,
spits on its hands, and goes to work.
~ Carl Sandburg

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Be Your Own Proofreader: 11 Errors to Avoid

Keep your writing polished — and save your proofreader’s red pen — by eliminating these 11 common errors.*

1. it’s vs. its
This often confuses people because we usually add an apostrophe “s” to indicate possession: the boy’s bicycle, the frogs’ legs, the baby’s bottle.

Not with “it,” though. It’s (with apostrophe) always means “it is.”

“Its” (no apostrophe) indicates possession, like his, hers, and its.

So: It’s better for your car if you change its oil every 5,000 miles.

2. you’re vs. your

Similar to it’s and its, misuse of you’re and your shows up far too often.

You’re always means “you are.”

Your indicates possession.

So: You’re welcome to bring your own bottle of wine to the restaurant.

3. that vs. which

Even good writers get confused by this one. (Is it “I like the beer that won the taste test”?  Or “I like the beer which won the taste test”? Or doesn’t it matter?)

It matters. I think people often choose “which” over “that” because they think it sounds fancier or more proper.

Here’s an easy way to remember: If you want to use “which” in this way, you need to add a comma before it. If the sentence still makes sense, “which” is the way to go.

Let’s try it with the earlier example.

“I like the beer, which won the taste test.” probably isn’t what you really mean. By using the comma and which, you are saying you like the beer (in general) and, oh, by the way, it won the taste test. The whole sentence is just awkward.

You probably meant to say you like a specific beer.

So:  I like the beer that won the taste test.

If you remember “which” is used to set something apart in a sentence and call attention to it, you’ll use it correctly.

So: The beer that won the taste test, which was conducted by master brewers, was also my favorite.

4. Overuse of “that”

Speaking of “that,” you can often eliminate it and your sentence will still make perfect sense.

So: I knew that I was wrong about that story, but only because the information that she gave me was wrong.

5. i.e., vs e.g.,

“i.e.,” is short for the Latin term id est, meaning “that is.” It should always have a comma after it. Add a comma before unless you’re using parentheses.

So: The milk was bad, i.e., rancid, so I threw it away.
Or: The milk was bad (i.e., rancid), so I threw it away.

“e.g.,”is short for the Latin term exempli gratia, meaning “for example.” The same comma rules apply.

So: Experiment with different cheeses (e.g., fontina, asiago, gorgonzola) instead of always reaching for the parmesan.

6. One word or two?
Many words you might think are two words or hyphenated are really one.  Here are some examples:

firsthand
lifelong
lightbulb
ongoing
straightforward
twofold, threefold
worldwide

On the flip side, words you may think are one word are not:

fund-raising
health care
life cycle
mind-set
off-site
record-keeping
road map

I wish I had an easy way to know which is which. Truth is, I frequently consult the dictionary on this topic.

7. One space after end punctuation

Many of us were taught to type two spaces between sentences and after colons. This is a carry-over from typewriter days, when fonts were not proportionally spaced. Each character took up the same space when typed, so using two spaces between sentences offered a break in the monotony and made for easier reading.

Fonts today are proportionally spaced, meaning a w is not the same width as an i, is not the same width as a 4, and so on. Two spaces are no longer needed.

Don’t believe me? Pick up any book or magazine. It uses only one space between sentences and after colons, and you can read it just fine.

It may take a bit to break yourself of the two-space habit, but it’s not that difficult. I have gone from typing two spaces (since learning to type in high school), to one space (at work 10 years later when I learned it was correct), back to two spaces (to meet my next employer’s incorrect house style), and finally back to one space. (I’ll never switch again.)

8. Apostrophes — using and “aiming”

The computer takes away any effort in typing apostrophes in contractions like can’t and won’t and it’s. Notice the apostrophe looks something like the number 9 on serif fonts like this one, and slants up and to the right on sans serif fonts (like Arial).

This same upward-right slant is the proper apostrophe to use whenever it takes the place of letters or numbers.

So: In the early ’90s, she was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar.
Or: The store encouraged us to “mix ’n’ match” sale items.

In some word processing programs, when you type a date like ’80s or ’90s, the computer will insert a single quotation mark facing the wrong way. Just position your cursor after that quote mark and type an apostrophe; it will be facing the proper way and you can just delete the wrong-facing one.

Oh, and remember not to add an apostrophe before the “s” when writing dates such as the 1880s or 1960s.

So: I was in my early 30s before I realized I had lived in the 1880s in a previous life.

Finally, if your apostrophes and quotation marks are straight up and down, you’re really typing foot and inch marks. Apostrophes and quotes should always be slanted or “curly.”

9. Consistency in using serial commas (or not)

A serial comma is the comma before “and” or “or” in a series.

So: He bought clams, shrimp, and saffron for the paella.

Depending on your “house style,” you may or may not use serial commas. If not, the sentence would be: He bought clams, shrimp and saffron for his paella.

My preference is to use serial commas, but some of my clients don’t. My job is to make sure they are consistent, either with or without. That’s your goal, too.

Note that even if you don’t normally use serial commas, complex sentences sometimes beg for them for easier reading. It’s okay to use them in these cases and eliminate them elsewhere in the same document.

So: His expertise includes a variety of electrical inventions, including those concerning consumer products, medical devices, software, wireless and wireline telephony and circuitry, and digital signal processing.

10. Forgetting a necessary “and”

Do you see anything wrong with this sentence?

We are experts at repairing broken drains, leaky faucets, and installing new plumbing.

It’s actually missing an “and.”

What the writer meant to say was that the company is expert at repairing broken drains and leaky faucets. It’s also expert at installing new plumbing.

So: We are experts at repairing broken drains and leaky faucets, and installing new plumbing.

11. Punctuation inside quotes (or not)

Basically, commas and periods go inside quotation marks, question marks sometimes go inside and sometimes outside, and all other punctuation goes outside.

So: We think our special recipe has just a hint of “magic.”
Is this paint “scarlet,” “ruby,” or “crimson”?
When he said, “Who cares?” I knew it was time to stop shopping.

Three qualities make up the Acme “difference”: know-how, speed, and price.
My favorite TV show is “The Office”; I never miss it.

These are just a few common errors I encounter when proofreading and editing. For an extremely helpful and entertaining refresher on many more aspects of grammar and good writing (and a great reference for your shelf), check out:

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English
by Patricia T. O’Conner

And for a British twist (even Americans will enjoy):

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
by Lynne Truss

Both are lively enough to read (willingly) on the plane, train, or over lunch and comprehensive enough to become a trusted resource.

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Everyone needs an editor.
~Tim Foote
commenting in
Time magazine on the fact that
Hitler’s original title for
Mein Kampf was
Four-and-a-Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice

* Note: These tips apply to American English — British English may handle some of them differently.

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Writing the Book on Style

Determining what style, what “voice,” your organization will use is one hurdle. Using that voice consistently is another. How do you keep everyone who writes for your organization on the same page? And how do you keep your published materials looking and sounding professional?

One of the most valuable tools any organization can develop is an editorial style manual. In the same way an identity manual guides graphic designers in the proper way to use your company’s logo and lay out various types of publications to support your brand, an editorial style manual guides those who write for you, whether employees or external consultants.  It can cover topics as basic as the rules of grammar or as sophisticated as how to project your organization’s preferred voice, whether formal, conversational, instructional, friendly, wise, experienced, hip, academic, etc. Most manuals land somewhere in between.

The writing world already has a few style manuals that are considered “bibles.” The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook are the two most frequently used. Certain professions or academic disciplines follow their own style manuals, such as the APA and MLA manuals.

Your organization will probably choose to follow “Chicago Style” or “AP Style.” The biggest difference between the two (and I’m generalizing here) is that Chicago Style uses a “serial comma” (a comma after “and” and “or” in a series — for example, “Our company produces widgets, whatsits, and thingamajigs.”) and AP Style doesn’t (“Our company produces widgets, whatsits and thingamajigs.”)

AP Style, as you would expect, is a journalistic style used by newspapers and news magazines. If your company uses a PR firm or has writers with a journalism or PR background, they likely use AP Style. Every book you read, along with most special interest magazines and journals, uses Chicago Style.*

You will want to choose a style and stick to it! Then you can build your own manual based on that style. (Note that your PR department may always use AP Style, even if your company chooses Chicago Style for everything else.) You’ll also want to refer to a good dictionary, such as Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary or the online version.

In many ways, your manual will simply distill the information from Chicago or AP and the dictionary to address the most common areas of confusion for writers.

For example:

  • One word or two or hyphenated? — Healthcare or health care? Fundraising or fund-raising? Nonprofit or non-profit or not-for-profit?
  • Capitalization — Internet or internet? Web site or website? Vice President or vice president?
  • Punctuation — U.S. or US? Colon or semicolon? Whats and hows vs. do’s and don’ts
  • Dates and numbers — May 2 or May 2nd? Ten times or 10 times? 20 percent or 20%? (800) 555-1212 or 1-800-555-1212 or 800.555.1212?
  • Grammar issues — It’s or its? That or which? Comprise vs. Consist vs. Compose
  • Bulleted or numbered lists — Do you use a colon or a period before? Do you end each item with a period, a semicolon, or nothing?
  • Typographic issues — Italics or underlined or bold? Hyphen vs. en-dash vs. em-dash; One space between sentences and after colons, not two
  • Language preferences — OK to say “you” and “your”? Use of gender — he, she, s/he?
  • Company specifics — How to refer to particular divisions or subsidiaries; Language to avoid for legal or cultural reasons
  • Writing tips — Choose active vs. passive style; Vary sentence length; Avoid jargon

Some people may consider these trivial issues. But for many readers, inconsistency and grammar errors are at best a wince-inducer and at worst a sign of carelessness, unprofessionalism, and perhaps poor education.

A style manual needn’t be overly complex or time-consuming to develop or maintain. In fact, it should be a “living” document that you revise as questions arise. Enlist the help of your writers or proofreaders to start one — or simply keep a running list for yourself of how you’ve handled issues like those listed above. Obviously, a large company that generates a lot of written materials will require a more comprehensive style manual than a small nonprofit. One client I work with has an 80-page style manual, another a 7-page manual — both are helpful and effective.

The bottom line: You want your written materials to present your organization in the best possible light. An editorial style manual will help you do just that — simply, economically, and professionally.

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I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can
become notoriously obsessed with the
placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon.
~ Truman Capote


* My preference is Chicago Style — I believe the millisecond it takes to add the serial comma eliminates any potential confusion when dealing with sentences more complicated than a simple “apples, peaches, and pears” series.

For example:

His expertise includes a variety of electrical inventions, including those concerning consumer products, medical devices, software, wireless and wireline telephony and digital signal processing.

I would rather avoid the second of confusion that arises at the end of that sentence, where “…wireless and wireline telephony and digital signal processing” run together. So if I choose to add a comma after “telephony” to avoid any confusion, why not just add the comma every time and never be confused?

Most law firms I work with use AP Style, which I find fascinating — attorneys are sticklers about clarity, yet favor a style that allows muddiness to creep in. Curious.

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Plain English or Just Plain?

The Plain English movement has been around in earnest since the 1970s, some say even earlier. It advocates writing in a clear, nontechnical style, free of jargon and long-windedness. It’s a beautiful thing.

Plain English turns this:

NO PERSON HAS BEEN AUTHORIZED TO GIVE ANY INFORMATION OR MAKE ANY REPRESENTATION OTHER THAN THOSE CONTAINED OR INCORPORATED BY REFERENCE IN THIS JOINT PROXY STATEMENT/PROSPECTUS, AND, IF GIVEN OR MADE, SUCH INFORMATION OR REPRESENTATION MUST NOT BE RELIED UPON AS HAVING BEEN AUTHORIZED.

Into this:

You should rely only on the information contained in this document or that we have referred you to. We have not authorized anyone to provide you with information that is different.

*Example from A Plain English Handbook: How to Write Clear SEC Disclosure Documents.


What I don’t think Plain English means, though, is that everything you write needs to be, well, plain. Certainly, what you’re writing and for whom should dictate the tone and your word choice: An instruction manual, a complaint letter, a company newsletter story, and an article for a business journal have different requirements. At all times, your writing should be clear and easy for the reader to follow. That doesn’t mean it has to be plain.

You can write clearly without sacrificing style or shying away from words that are out of the ordinary. The English language is rich and varied, with a plethora of words to capture and express precise meanings and subtle nuances. Perhaps most importantly, the words you choose set the tone of your writing and give it life.

It’s fine to choose simple, everyday words if your goal is informality and you feel that approach will resonate with your audience. But in other contexts, don’t be afraid to add an odd word or write more formally, even if it might make readers pause for a moment. They might have to glean a word’s meaning from the context of the sentence, or maybe even look it up. While too much of that gets tiresome, I never object to learning a new word or two as I go along — your readers won’t either.

Think about how refreshing it is to read something that takes a stand. Are employees interested in the new recycling program or has it actually galvanized them as a team? Did the technology change the way the organization works or transform it?

A word can create emphasis  simply because it is less common — it’s obvious you chose it for a reason. The turnaround wasn’t surprising, it was astounding. The extra step didn’t slow the process, it stymied it. Last year wasn’t just a challenging one for the industry, it was abysmal.

Many years ago, I worked at a local historical society whose approach to writing exhibit labels was to write for an 8th-grade reading level. I never understood that practice. It seemed to short-change both the topics and the readers — and felt like talking down to people. The majority of our visitors were adults, not pre-teens.

The Bottom Line: Why not give the audience the benefit of the doubt? Use the broad array of words at your disposal to make even Plain English interesting and engaging.

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The difference between the right word and the nearly right word
is the same as that between the lightning and the lightning bug.
~ Mark Twain

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