Spelling errors – ‘Nice suit, a pity about the stains’

Spelling errors? Big yawn. Who cares – as long as you get across the big message?

I just came across a message sent to a LinkedIn group from someone anxious to publicise his new CD:

“I’m proud to announce that my inspiprational and motivational “Amplify Your Success” CD is now available.”

The CD is titled: ‘Highly Effective Back to Basics Approach for Building Your Confidence & Achieving Success’.

We mustn’t get too pedantirrational about such little errors. But the subject of track No. 7 on the CD is: Make A Great Impression. (Let’s ignore for now the subject of track No. 8, which is ‘Confident Communication‘)

Smith, Vanity Fair, 1904

Smith, Vanity Fair, 1904

Smart – but don’t look too close

Imagine someone standing before a group of wide-eyed people keen to learn the Secrets of Success. He’s wearing a well-cut suit, smart tie, sparkling cufflinks. He looks smart – and successful – from a distance.

It’s a bit draughty at the back of the room, so you move up to a front seat. You get a closer look at Mr Successful Guru. A little white stain on one of his lapels. Hm, careless … happens to us all. Then you notice another little stain on one of his sleeves … and then another on his trousers. You start counting them – seven in all.

You haven’t heard a word he’s been saying for a minute or two, so you focus back on his words – in a slightly sceptical frame of mind.

Little thing, big effect

Like stains on one’s clothes, spelling and other types of errors in our writing are little things that can have a big effect.

One or two minor errors don’t matter much (we all do it). Consistently making errors is another matter.

Say someone is offering website services. The marketing message is: Fantastic. Best in the business. Unrivalled service. But the copy is riddled with mistakes, so a secondary message is being conveyed: Sloppy. No attention to detail. Unprofessional.

Yet everywhere you look you see errors – in LinkedIn discussions, forum comments, marketing material, website copy – committed by people who are trying to promote themselves.

A lot of the writing is so slipshod you can’t even work out what the person is trying to say. But that’s a matter for another day.

Yes, I know, this is not a very ‘inspiprational’ bit of writing, but we need to remind ourselves to pay attention to our words before they go public. If we do, we’re more likely to Make A Great Impression.

(Meanwhile, if you’re doing some public speaking and want to Communicate Confidently, don’t forget to check your clothes before you go on stage.)

Posted in Editing, Language, Proofreading, Typos Tagged with: , ,

Word use – how to make a good word meaningless

How do you render a word meaningless? One good way is to use it repeatedly in such a way that it ends up meaning nothing.

That is the current fate of the word ‘significant’, which has been so over-used that it now means ‘insignificant’. That’s some achievement, isn’t it – to render meaningless a word that means ‘meaningful’.

Here are some examples:

  • A senior police officer says there will be “significant arrests” of those involved in a riot in a British city.
  • A youth-justice organisation “reveals significant achievements and improvements in the youth justice system over the last year”.
  • The US Department of Education issues a list of “significant guidance documents” – as distinct from a list of “insignificant guidance documents”.
  • Police report a “significant” drop in crime. By how much, do you think? 4.6%? 9.9% 15% 22%. As it happens, 8.3%.
  • The BBC announces a “significant change” to its online news offering.
  • A police officer is killed in Ottawa. The president of the Canadian Police Association says: “This is going to be a significant, significant loss.” (More precisely, he also said: “His death will have a profound effect on the force.”)
  • Engineers make “significant progress” towards putting a new cap on BP’s leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • NASA discovers a “significant amount” of water on the moon. How much would that be? Fortunately, the scientist announcing the discovery offered a significant illustration, holding up several white plastic containers and adding: “about a dozen, two-gallon bucketfuls”.

What does the damn word mean?

Now, according to the Oxford Dictionaries online, ‘significant’ means (in two senses):

1 sufficiently great or important to be worthy of attention; noteworthy …

2 having a particular meaning …”

If you announce something, then, it is presumably “sufficiently great or important to be worthy of attention”, so you hardly need to say it is “significant”.

It’s almost automatic to say or write ‘significant’ now to save us from the effort of being more exact. Small, very small, minor, big, major, huge? Damn it, significant will do.

What a relief it is to find the chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank acknowledging that the Irish government’s bailout for his bank involves, not a “significant”, but a “staggering amount of money” (Irish Times report, 1 April 2010). He correctly realised that corporate euphemistic generality and vagueness would not suffice.

‘Significant’ does, of course, have an exact meaning in statistics (look it up if you wish). And, according to my calculations, in non-statistical texts the word is used in an insignificant (that is, meaningless) way in 87.56% of cases.

So, next time you’re about to use the word ‘significant’, stop for a second and do something significant for the health of the language: use a different word.

Posted in Language, Words

World-class, state-of-the-art, best-practice bullshit

If Professor Michael O’Keeffe, Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon in Temple Street Children’s Hospital, Dublin, is as good a doctor as he is a man, then he’s one of the best.

On 9 July, he was interviewed by Pat Kenny on RTE Radio 1 (‘Today with Pat Kenny’).

What provoked the interview was the cancellation of operations at Temple Street on children with cataracts, glaucoma, etc. Mr O’Keeffe pointed out that such children risk going blind if the operation is not carried out in good time.

One of the children was, in fact, a six-week-old baby with cataracts – and a baby of six weeks, he said, is at a “critical period in visual development”.

Mr O’Keeffe went on to contrast the PR spin – “the statistics” and “the lies” – of those who manage the Irish health system with the “reality on the ground”, which is “a disaster”. The “system is breaking down”, he said: inefficiencies, cutbacks, phones not answered, lists cancelled, outpatients not starting on time or cancelled.

“I think patients have become a nuisance in hospitals,” he said sardonically. “We could run them so well without them.”

Meaningless jargon

He added: “We talk about grandiose schemes … a ‘world-class health system’ and all this sort of thing, this jargon, which is meaningless, because none of the basics are happening.

“I recently got an email from one of the hospitals saying they now wanted to discuss biological management of patient care. Now you tell me what that means, it’s meaningless stuff, this is the sort of garbage we’re into …”

Looking after patients was “really quite simple, but we’re into management speak”, complicating things, and “we’re forgetting the basics”.

Pointing out the current jargon for closing down – reconfiguration – Mr O’Keeffe said: “World-class means nothing down at my level.”

He spoke passionately and with a savage indignation that it’s not possible to convey in print.

‘Transformation and reconfiguration’

After listening to the interview, I went to the Health Service Executive website and had a look at its 2009 annual report: “implementing our transformation and [here we are!] reconfiguration agenda”, “have achieved 70% of our 2011 targets in 23 of the 35 representative areas … we maximised every possible measure to protect frontline services”, and so on.

Then I googled world class state of the art best practice and got three million results. One of the sites listed was a “world-class data center” which uses various “mission-critical systems”, including a “state-of-the-art fire suppression system”.

Another of the sites was that of a “leading” American health-care provider, which asserted: “Our expert and caring medical teams are empowered and supported by industry-leading technology advances and tools for health promotion, disease prevention, state-of-the art care delivery and world-class chronic disease management.”

This health-care provider may actually be quite good but, if you’re fussy about hyphens (or the lack of them), you’ll notice that the phrase “chronic disease management”, strictly speaking, means “chronic management of disease”.

Indeed. After all, what Mr O’Keeffe was surgically cutting into was all the grandiose, high-flying management speak that masks chronic management and “disaster” at the ground level.

A new rule

With the shakespearean perception “Methinks she doth protest too much” in mind, I now suggest a new rule:

The quantity and grandiosity of management speak is in inverse proportion to the quality of the service provided.

Posted in Jargon, Language Tagged with: , ,

Manglishing the language

Back in 2006, it was reported that Malaysia planned to fine people who mangled the national language on posters and signs.

Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Rais Yatim warned that billboards and posters showing “mutated” forms of Malay would lead to those responsible being fined, if they had already received a warning.

The aim was to make sure that “the national language was not sidelined in any way”.

Most Malaysians speak Malay, or Bahasa Malaysia, but many also speak English – which results in Manglish, a mishmash of the two languages.

The Malaysian government wanted to root out English words used in Malay and replace them with Malay substitutes. Mr Rais said a national language unit would be established to reduce the extent of Manglish.

A police chief said he would like to see commonly used terms such as ‘touch n go’ and ‘boulevard’ replaced with Malay words. Seeking to ban ‘boulevard’ is a nice irony, given that the French have long sought to eradicate English terms from French. (There’s an opportunity here for some linguistic scholar looking for a topic – a comparative study of Manglish and franglais.)

Serial offenders

I haven’t been able to get an update about this linguistic cleansing campaign, but the notion of fining people for mangling the language is an attractive one.

After all, if the language police had been operating in the US during George Bush’s time, he would probably have ended up in jail as a serial offender.

Closer to home, Bertie Ahern would (at least in theory) have suffered the same fate, and we might have been spared some of the financial mess we’re in.

Posted in Language, Words Tagged with: , ,

Proofreading – Knight in dingy armour fights for the cause

“Good spelling is really important, as is always checking your work.”

The person who said this should be listened to. He is, after all, Britain’s Schools Minister, Jim Knight. He urged British pupils to edit and proofread their writing work. And so they damn well should.

Meanwhile, a good case study of the problems that arise when you don’t edit and proofread your own work involves, eh, British Schools Minister Jim Knight.

Mr Knight crafts his own blogs. In February 2009, someone pointed out that these were riddled with errors, including: similiar, pernsioners, maintainence, convicned, curently, reccess, archeaological, receieved and foce (foce?).

Words were missing in many of his mangled sentences:

He wrote about a new road in his Dorset South constituency, saying it had “receieved” planning permission, adding: “It’s great to see work already starting on the route in terms of the archeaological investigations.”

Other examples: “The new diplomas are being taught very successful …”.

When the little problem was pointed out to him, he admitted his sins. He’d an excuse – “I update my own blog and Facebook page, often from my phone when I am on the move. As a result, mistakes do occasionally creep in” – but added: “In the future, I ‘must do better’ and always check my work.”

Within hours, someone was also making retrospective corrections to old blog entries on Mr Knight’s website.

Making money from typos

While typos cost Mr Knight some credibility, Google’s earning an estimated $497 million a year from typos.

Harvard University researchers Tyler Moore and Benjamin Edelman say Google is making millions from the practice of ‘typosquatting’. A typosquatter registers domain names that closely resemble high-traffic websites, but include common misspellings.

For example, a typosquatter might register domain names such as Amazzon.com, Anazon.com and Amazons.com. People searching for the Amazon.com website might accidentally type in the wrong url, and thus end up on one of the typosquatter’s websites. These websites are usually a collection of lucrative click-thru advertisements.

Children’s websites have been targeted, with the result that Simpsons and Teletubbies variations have led people to porn sites.

Google ends up making money from typosquatting because its network of display ads run on the typo sites, and it gets a cut of the profits.

Posted in Editing, Language, Proofreading, Typos, Words Tagged with: , ,

Death by PowerPoint may mean what it says

US military strategy on Afghanistan - a rare example of PowerPoint complexity

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

That’s what General Stanley McChrystal, leader of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, reportedly said when shown this PowerPoint slide in Kabul a year ago.

If the slide, titled ‘Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics – Security’, had been intended to show the complexity of US military strategy, it presumably succeeded admirably.

It was certainly a change from the usual bang-bang bulletpointing and straight-line simplicity of many PowerPoint presentations.

It looks as if President Obama’s July 2011 date for starting to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is optimistic. Referring to these plans, a senior Administration said: “There’s some evidence that reminds us that this is not going to be a straight line of progress. It’s probably best described as zigs and zags.” (NYT report of 14 June 2010).

Indeed, but the problem is that the PP presentations said to have invaded military activities usually omit the complexities and the zigs and zags.

Old-fashioned human speech

When British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was touring Afghanistan earlier this year, he was shown a nicely bulletpointed, tidily optimistic slideshow about the battle for hearts and minds in Helmand. This upbeat show left him and his party with their morales boosted – until an official with knowledge of the region (that owes nothing to PP slideshows) summarised the situation in Helmand in the joined-up phrases of fluent human speech. In brief, he made it clear that Helmand was a disaster.

No doubt, PP is useful for gung-ho military men and can-do corporate communicators with a liking for bullets and bulletpoints. But one wonders how far the way it encourages over-simplification and excludes elusive complexities and nuances leads to disastrous military and corporate decision-making.

PP is one of those many tools and techniques that normally intelligent people have allowed to get out of control in a way that stupefies us and leads us into trouble. The ubiquitous slideshow, it seems, does not lead only to a dimming of the lights.

General McChrystal apparently is treated to two PowerPoint briefings in Kabul every day. In so far as these bulletpointed briefings simplify things, they must lead to military mistakes, which tend to be quite costly. ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is probably a literal reality.

Posted in Powerpoint Tagged with: ,

Bad writing can sometimes be bad-minded

The French and the Dutch voted down the EU constitution in 2005.

A prominent American judge, Mark P Painter, in an interesting article titled ‘Did Bad Writing Doom the EU Constitution?’, suggested that one reason for this rejection was that the voters had “actually tried to read” the constitution.

He quotes a typical paragraph:

“Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level. The institutions of the Union shall apply the principle of subsidiarity as laid down in the Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. National Parliaments shall ensure compliance with that principle in accordance with the procedure set out in that Protocol.”

He quotes, for comparison, the Tenth Amendment in the American Bill of Rights:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

He then cites William DuBay of Impact Information (a plain-language crusader), who drew attention to some stark differences between the US and the EU constitutions:

US Constitution

11 pages, 4,000 words, seven articles, all written at a “democratic 9th-grade level”.

EU Constitution

855 pages, 156,447 words, “written at the 16th-grade level”; “badly organized … The first and most important part is missing a title. Some of the 465 articles ended up in the wrong sections.”

His final comment: “Of course, we cannot lord it over the Europeans too much, because our lawyers usually write too many words. And most of our statutes are awful. But considering the drafters of the two constitutions, we had the better group.”


If ‘bad writing’ and unreadable legalese did contribute to the French and Dutch rejection, the EU, it seems, did not learn the lesson. After all, when the Lisbon Treaty was rejected initially by Irish voters, one of the reasons given was that it was “unreadable”.

However, it appears that this unreadability was not a matter of incompetence; that, in fact, the treaty was deliberately rendered unreadable.

The Lisbon Treaty was almost a carbon copy of the Constitutional Treaty voted down by France and the Netherlands. The author of the text, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, said the Lisbon Treaty was “purely a legal rewriting – incidentally unreadable – of the draft Constitutional Treaty”.

The treaty was not “incidentally” unreadable, though, according to Guliano Amato, the former vice-president of the convention that drafted the EU Constitution. He said that EU leaders had deliberately made the treaty unreadable so that the changes would be less noticeable.

We tend to assume that politicians, lawyers and the drafters of constitutions seek to communicate clearly. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Judge Painter is one of the seven judges on the United Nations Appeals Tribunal. His book The Legal Writer – 40 Rules for the Art of Legal Writing is available at http://store.cincybooks.com/
He is a powerful advocate for plain legal language. Unlike the drafters of the EU treaties, he believes that “The law affects everyone — we all should be able to understand it.”

Website: http://www.judgepainter.org/

Posted in Language Tagged with: , ,

How churnalists make us solastalgic for the good old days

We’ve invented  a lot of ghastly new words and phrases in recent decades: ugly, bland, abstract, meaningless jargon. So it’s good to come across some colourful new words on Paul McFedries’s website Wordspy:


Churnalism is what so-called journalists do when, instead of doing their own investigations, they churn out articles derived from press releases and wire stories.

Paul McFedries cites Nigel Green, in Media are increasingly relying on police handouts as a basis for crime stories (The Guardian, December 7, 2009), who wrote: “Last year, I highlighted for MediaGuardian how Northumbria police hold back serious crimes from the media. Meanwhile, the force’s £1.5m-a-year corporate communications department pumps out more press releases on falling crime rates, clampdowns, raids, initiatives and other stories designed to produce positive PR. The result, I believe, is that most crime reporting in the north-east is now little more than churnalism.”

The design for a skyscraper in Canada


As populations rise and space runs out, it’s proposed that crops could be grown in high-rise buildings, called farmscrapers.

This vertical farming would use hydro- and aeroponic systems in which little water would be needed to raise the crops.

A Google search yields nearly 8,000 results. The whole idea of high-rise crop-growing has also led to the poetically suggestive term sky farming.

late-breaking gay

This is someone who ‘comes out’ at a relatively late stage.
Ralph Slovenko, in Psychiatry in Law/Law in Psychiatry, notes: “Of increasing frequency are the ‘late-breaking gays’ who abandon their spouse and children for a gay partner. It is depicted in films, in Broadway plays, and on the Oprah Winfrey show.”


The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht came up with this term in a 2004 essay. He defines solastalgia as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault … a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home”.

More briefly, “Whereas nostalgia is homesickness for a place, solastalgia is a yearning for the way a loved place used to be.” (Des Houghton, ‘Pain has a brand new label’, The Courier Mail, February 27, 2010).

The word combines the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root algia (pain).

It’s more specific than eco anxiety. One example is the effect on local people of large-scale, open-cut coal mining in the Upper Hunter Valley of New South Wales – a sense of powerlessness and lack of control.

It’s good to see that people can invent more or less elegant words in an age that comes up with terms such as suboptimal outcome and access controller. The latter, by the way, was once called a doorman.

Posted in Language Tagged with: , , ,

Two kinds of language – and a dam letter event

It’s odd how many people, once they become corporatised or bureaucratised, lose their powers of strong, effective, colourful speech.

Here’s an interesting exchange of letters. It’s from a few years back, but it’s worth recalling because it illustrates the difference between two kinds of communication.

In one kind, it’s not considered odd to refer to “the above referenced parcel of property“ or to “a rain event”.

In the other kind, you hear the vivid speech of a human being.

Letter one

Here are some extracts from the first letter. It’s from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to a man called Ryan DeVries.

SUBJECT: DEQ File No.97-59-0023; T11N; R10W, Sec. 20; Lycoming County

Dear Mr. DeVries: It has come to the attention of the Department of Environmental Quality that there has been recent unauthorized activity on the above referenced parcel of property. You have been certified as the legal landowner and/or contractor who did the following unauthorized activity:

Construction and maintenance of two wood debris dams across the outlet stream of Spring Pond.

A permit must be issued prior to the start of this type of activity …

The Department has been informed that one or both of the dams partially failed during a recent rain event, causing debris and flooding at downstream locations. We find that dams of this nature are inherently hazardous and cannot be permitted. The Department therefore orders you to cease and desist all activities at this location, and to restore the stream to a free-flow condition …


David L. Price

District Representative and Water Management Division

If he fails to comply, Mr DeVries is threatened with “elevated enforcement action” – does that mean that he will be hanged?

Letter two

Mr DeVries replies, confirming that he was the “legal landowner but not the Contractor at 2088 Dagget Lane, Trout Run, Pennsylvania”. He added:

“A couple of beavers are in the (State unauthorized) process of constructing and maintaining two wood ‘debris’ dams across the outlet stream of my Spring Pond. While I did not pay for, authorize, nor supervise their dam project, I think they would be highly offended that you call their skillful use of nature’s building materials ‘debris’ …

As to your request, I do not think the beavers are aware that they must first fill out a dam permit prior to the start of this type of dam activity …

‘Please contact the beavers’

If you want the stream ‘restored’ to a dam free-flow condition please contact the beavers …

In my humble opinion, the Spring Pond Beavers have a right to build their unauthorized dams as long as the sky is blue, the grass is green and water flows downstream.

They have more dam rights than I do to live and enjoy Spring Pond …

So, as far as the beavers and I are concerned, this dam case can be referred for more elevated enforcement action right now …

In conclusion, I would like to bring to your attention to a real environmental quality, health, problem in the area. It is the bears! Bears are actually defecating in our woods. I definitely believe you should be persecuting the defecating bears and leave the beavers alone …

Being unable to comply with your dam request, and being unable to contact you on your dam answering machine, I am sending this response to your dam office.


So, which of the two would you prefer having a chat with? Mr David L Price, or Ryan DeVries?

Posted in Language Tagged with: ,

‘PowerPoint makes us stupid’

Have you ever bored an audience stupid with a PowerPoint presentation?

I think I may have done so once or twice – not because the presentation was especially awful, but because I packed in too much and went on too long.

Anyway, according to General James N Mattis of the US Marine Corps, PowerPoint can not only bore people stupid, but “makes us stupid”.

He managed to say that – without the help of PowerPoint – at a military conference in North Carolina recently.

Dangerous illusions

Another US military man, Brigadier General HR McMaster, said of PowerPoint: “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bulletizable.”

No? Does he mean you can’t explain all the complexities and nuances of the Middle Eastern conflict with a rigid list of seven bulletpoints?

Apparently not. “If you divorce war from all of that,” he said, “it becomes a targeting exercise.”

When leading the campaign to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, McMaster banned PP presentations. But junior officers — otherwise known as PowerPoint Rangers — are still kept busy preparing daily presentations.

Winning the war with PowerPoint

In January 2009, the website Company Command asked US army commanders and platoon leaders in Iraq what they spent most of their time doing. One officer, Lt Sam Nuxoll, said: “Making PowerPoint slides”.

When pressed, he added: “I’m dead serious, guys. The one thing I spend more time on than anything else here in combat is making PowerPoint slides. I have to make a storyboard [a PP presentation] complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens. Recon a water pump? Make a storyboard. Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”

(Some people might think that keeping US forces busy preparing PP presentations all day long would be a good thing, since it would deflect them from their “targeting exercises”.)

Captain Crispin Burke, an army operations officer at Fort Drum, NY, said in an interview that he spent about an hour every day making PP presentations. He has spent another hour or two writing an interesting essay about PP on the Small Wars Journal website. He points out – without a single bulletpoint – that PP is not to blame: “Rather, our over-reliance on slide-view software, over-filtering of information, and over-simplification of complex ideas into small bullet points and cartoons is to blame for our communication errors. Not all presentations need be complex and filled with special effects, nor do important ideas need to be transmitted via PowerPoint.”

In other words, PowerPoint is just a tool. All depends on how we use it.

Posted in Powerpoint Tagged with: