Saturday, January 26, 2008

Word of the Week: abundant

With the world’s stock markets on a daily -- sometimes hourly -- rollercoaster ride, it might seem surprising that I’ve chosen “abundant” as word of the week. (After all, abundance is probably not what folks think is in store if the economy hits the skids.)

I’ve chosen it because it jumped off the page at me this week as I was reading a law firm’s promotional brochure. Here’s the sentence that caught my eye:

“[Our] Criminal Law Group has abundant years of experience defending criminal and quasi-criminal charges that often involve complicated issues of law, facts and evidence.”

Abundant years of experience? My dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.)) defines abundant as: 1 very plentiful; more than sufficient; ample, 2 well supplied; rich.

When a client writes something like “abundant years of experience” and I change it, I often struggle to explain why I’ve done so. In this case, pointing out the dictionary definition should explain it all -- but the frustrating part is trying to explain how you can avoid making such errors. (Clearly the person who wrote it didn’t realize he or she was using the word wrong.)

There is no foolproof way of avoiding improper usage other than to look words up. Of course, if you don’t think you’re confused about the meaning of a word, chances are you’d never even think of looking it up, and it’s not practical to look up every word.

I understand the frustration -- and, the fact is, we’ve all misused words on occasion. But, in this case, the law firm could have avoided the error if they’d have stuck to more ordinary words. My guess is that the firm thought writing something like “we have lots of experience defending …” was too informal (or “not professional”), so they chose “abundant”.

The beauty of using ordinary words is everyone will understand you and you don’t risk seeming illiterate.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Word of the Week: change

When I give plain language seminars I always include a discussion of jargon. I usually define jargon as a term that has special meaning in a particular field. I think most people think of jargon as fairly exotic or unusual words or phrases -- but common words also can be jargon when they take on special meaning in certain contexts. The example I often give of a common word that can be jargon is “sheet”. If a sailor says, “pass me the sheet”, she’s likely talking about a rope; if hotel housekeepers are making up a room and one says, “pass me the sheet”, the other will pass them a bed linen.

Unless you specifically define how you’re using particular jargon, you risk confusing your audience because you may have one meaning in mind and the audience may have another meaning in mind.

This week’s Word of the Week is another great example of a common word that can be jargon. Many of the U.S. presidential candidates are throwing around “change”, but you can bet that it means something distinctly different to each of them and to voters. (Of course, I suppose we all know that politicians have their reasons for not defining what they mean ...)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Appendices, Schedules, and Glossaries

Many of my clients write reports and opinions that are fairly long. How much information or detail to include is always an issue for them, and it’s one they frequently ask me about. Unfortunately, there is no simple, or “right”, answer.

That said, at the risk of sounding flippant, I usually tell them the rule of thumb is they should include “just enough” information. Of course, determining how much is “just enough” can be challenging, but if you put yourself in the place of the reader, you’ll be in a much better position to figure out what to include than if you just keep looking at it from the perspective of the writer. In other words, consider:

  • what information the reader truly needs to know to understand the point you’re trying to make,
  • what information (or understanding) the reader already has about the topic,
  • the readers’ inherent interest in the information, and
  • the amount of time the reader is able to invest in reading the document.

Assessing these things requires judgment. Furthermore, the determination can be even more complicated if the audience is diverse (as it often is).

If you find you have a lot of valuable information but you believe not every reader in your target audience will want, or need, the same level of detail, consider whether some of the information might be suited for appendices or schedules. (For the record, I am neutral as to whether you call something an appendix or schedule. It seems, or at least some clients have argued, that in certain fields or industries one term is more commonly used than the other. My view is you should use whatever label you think appropriate.)

So, for example, if you’re reporting on the results of tests or research your firm did, the body of the report must include enough detail for members of your target audience to understand the project and how you reached the conclusions you did. Additional information, for example, details about the tests you carried out or the data you used or analyzed can be included in an appendix.

I find what the Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) says about the content of an appendix helpful:

“An appendix may include explanations and elaborations that are not essential parts of text but are helpful to a reader seeking further clarification, texts of documents, long lists, survey questionnaires, or sometimes even charts or tables. The appendix should not be a repository for odds and ends that the author could not work into the text.”

If you use appendices or schedules, however, keep in mind that readers may well (or, in some cases, likely will) ignore them. Shocking, I know! But the reality is, many readers won’t read them. So, if you have something important to say -- or that you think the reader should know -- it must be in the main body of text.

And finally, a few words about glossaries. Glossaries usually contain definitions of terms (or abbreviations) used in the text. Like appendices and schedules, glossaries are meant to provide useful information for readers. But, having to constantly refer to a glossary to figure out what a term means is often more annoying than helpful, so include glossaries only if they’re really necessary. And remember -- inclusion of a term in a glossary isn’t meant as a substitute for explaining the term in the main text.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) offered advice* for companies using glossaries in disclosure documents that I think is appropriate for any writer considering including a glossary:

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Word of the Week: pundit

Do you remember those reading comprehension tests we all took in school? You know, those where you had to figure out the meaning of a word from the context of the sentence or paragraph in which the word was used. (I experienced -- first-hand -- the value of the skill in high school when I was filling out a job application and one question on the form was: Are you bonded -- Yes or No? At 17 I certainly didn’t know what bonding was but applying what I thought of as a derivation of the reading comprehension idea, I reasoned: “if I were bonded, I think I would know it”, so the answer must be no. Anyway…)

The skill of figuring out the meaning of a word from the context came to mind this week with all the news reports about how all the pundits got the New Hampshire primary results so wrong. Of course I’d heard the term pundit before, but I never really knew its definition. Given the way it was used before primary day, I figured pundits were those who gave their opinion and who, for a reason that was never clear to me, the media made a big to-do about listening to. I paid close enough attention to realize that some that the media labeled pundits were clearly biased in favour of one party or the other. Indeed, in many cases it seemed that those pundits’ main claim to fame was having worked for a well-known Republican or Democrat in the past. Other so-called pundits seemed to have come to their conclusion based on various “polls”. (Poll was almost the word of the week because it drives me crazy that it can refer to the results of a mere survey of opinions or to an actual tally of votes at an official election.)

After Hilary’s victory, from the way the term was then used, it seemed to me that anyone who had predicted the outcome incorrectly was labeled a pundit. Rather confusing, given that just before the election we’re led to believe that a pundit is someone who knows what they’re talking about!

Eventually I turned to the dictionary. I’m happy to report that my reading comprehension skills didn’t let me down. According to my dictionary (Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th Ed)), a pundit is: “a person who has or professes to have great learning; actual or self-professed authority.” So I guess you can say that before the actual primary all those who were treated as though they had great learning definitely qualified as pundits and after the primary they were rightly referred to as pundits because at that point it was clear that what they really had was (merely) professed authority.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Word of the Week

Given today’s date -- and the fact that the idea of having a regular blog posting called Word of the Week came to me today -- I’m tempted to choose epiphany for the word … but that seems a bit self-serving.

Instead, for the premier Word of the Week posting, I’m choosing: subprime. Before continuing – and believing in giving credit where credit is due -- I don’t mind admitting that I got this whole idea after reading an article about the American Dialect Society’s (ADS’s) choice of subprime as its 2007 Word of the Year. According to its press release, “subprime is an adjective used to describe a risky or less than ideal loan, mortgage or investment”.

While I think the ADS’s choice is inspired -- anyone paying any attention to the news in at least the last quarter of 2007 would surely have read or heard the word -- I choose it for reasons that are different from the ADS’s.

I think subprime deserves attention because it’s a great example of a word that, though repeated almost daily, is rarely explained, which, as a communications specialist, drives me crazy. When the word first started gaining popularity, I began wondering what it meant. As a lawyer and a consultant with clients in the financial services industry, I have passing familiarity with things like the prime interest rate and I kind of thought there must be some correlation between prime rates and subprime. But, all I could do was guess at what the term might mean. It took quite awhile before I finally found a (long) business article that explained what the term meant -- and, quite frankly, I was so surprised by the explanation, I feel even stronger that anyone using the word in business writing should take the time to explain it!

So, I’m choosing subprime as the first ever Word of the Week because it’s the type of word that business folks and business reporters often use with little or no explanation, leaving readers feeling ignorant or wondering whether the person using the term even really knows what it means …