Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Not so "simple"

The front page headline of today's Toronto Star read: "Office towers win tax cuts". The headline accompanied an article by John Spears of the City Hall bureau about a decision by the Assessment Review Board (ARB) that may give the owners of 12 of Toronto's biggest downtown office towers a property tax refund -- a big one. (The case is complicated and the amount of the refund is not clear -- but, according to the article, "the amounts in play are staggering".)

As a resident of Toronto, naturally I'm interested in the news. (If the tower owners do get a refund, that will leave a huge hole in the City's budget that may end up being filled in by hitting up residential property owners -- like me.) But, the item in the news story that caught my eye as a plain language consultant is the fact that it appears the case turns, at least in part, on the interpretation of a certain phrase -- an arcane legal phrase -- used in the definition of "current value" in S. 1 of the Assessment Act.

According to the article, "[T]he bank towers case was highly technical and hinged on what is meant by the words of the Assessment Act, which says assessment should be based on the value of a buidling "in fee simple, if unencumbered"."
The Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC), the organization charged with assessing properties, argued the value of the towers should be determined based on their value fully occupied by rent-paying tenants. The tower owners said that the wording of the Assessment Act means the towers must be valued as though the buildings are unencumbered by tenants and leases.

The ARB agreed with the tower owners and held that MPAC's assessment method "contains a fundamental flaw", according to the Star article. Apparently the ARB rejected MPAC's submission (which had been joined in by the City of Toronto), saying the submission was "based on an incorrect interpretation of the words of the Act.".

Sure seems to me this confusion (not to mention all the legal costs incurred in bringing the action) might have been avoided if the Assessment Act were written in plain language.

FYI, apparent MPAC is considering appealing the ARB's decision. Stay tuned... I know I will!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Word of the Week: convivium

So I have a new rule of thumb when it comes to deciding whether a word qualifies as plain language: if it’s not in the standard version of a good dictionary (for example, my trusty Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.) or an on-line one like www.merriam-webster.com) I think it’s safe to say the word is too highfalutin to be used in most communication.

I was in a conversation the other day and the person I was speaking with used the word convivium. Not (usually) too embarrassed to admit when I didn’t know what a word means and, of course, certainly not too embarrassed to ask how the word is spelled, I asked both questions. The person (graciously) spelled it and defined it for me.

Intrigued (and because I had kind of forgotten the definition), I went on-line to look it up. When I went into the Merriam-Webster site that I usually use and I typed in the word, the message that popped up surprised me. Though it’s clear that it’s a word (and I spelled it correctly), the message said that to get the definition I had to go to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged site which is a subscription-based site. (I should note that there was a free trial offer for the Unabridged version, but I didn’t try it. Instead, I decided to look for it in my regular dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.).)

Well, turns out it’s not in my regular dictionary either. So, unless someone out there has a less-abridge dictionary than I do, or perhaps subscribes to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged site and wants to share the definition of convivium, I’m not going to worry it. I’ll stick to plain language words.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Quotation marks

I'm a stickler about using quotation marks. I think if you're directly quoting something, you must use quotation marks and you must attribute the source of the quote. Usually this issue comes up in terms of concerns of plagiarism. Indeed, I often advise clients that even when you're not quoting something verbatim (for example, you're paraphrasing something someone else said or wrote), to avoid claims of plagiarism, it's a good idea to mention where the idea comes from.

But the proper use of quotation marks isn't limited to whether to use them to avoid claims of plagiarism. A recent news story from my alma mater (Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism) focused on another aspect related to using quotation marks -- the use of unattributed quotes.

The issue came to my attention when a fellow Medill alum e-mailed me a recent article from the Chicago Tribune. The Trib article focused on the use of unattributed quotes by Dean of the journalism school in the Letter from the Dean column that appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of the Medill alumni magazine.

Apparently, a columnist (David Spett) on the Daily Northwestern (the student newspaper) found the quotes curious (they didn't sound like something students would say) and so he: 1) tried to find out who might have said them, and 2) took the Dean to task for using unattributed quotes -- a technique that Medill students wouldn't get away with in class. The Trib article highlights the issue well (as well as some some of the politics that might be further fueling the controversy).

Given that this was a letter from the Dean that ran in an alumni magazine, I don't think the use of quotation marks should be analyzed in terms of the strict rules a journalist would apply to a news story. Instead, I would analyze it this way: in choosing to use quotation marks the Dean was trying to add credence to his opening statement that Medill is producing well trained students.

Clearly, he could have made the same point by simply saying that the feedback he's gotten from students confirms that they feel well trained, etc. But, because he chose to use quotation marks he clearly was implying that it's not just his view and so readers should have been told who else, specifically, supports his claim (if for no other reason, so that readers can decide for themselves whether the persons quoted are believable, etc.).

I think the bottom line is that quotation marks are a very powerful tool and should be used with great care.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Word of the Week: expert

I had an awkward moment this week when a potential client asked me what my areas of expertise are. Realizing that blurting out, “I’m not an expert in anything”, would likely bring a quick end to the conversation, I managed to avoid answering for a few minutes as I figured out how to reply.

My reluctance to call myself an expert doesn’t come from modesty or low self-esteem. It comes from my belief that the “expert” label should be sparingly used, so as not to dilute its meaning. In an era where it sometimes seems that many feel comfortable calling themselves an expert at something they’ve done once, as long as they’ve not made a complete mess of it, I feel the word is terribly over-used. To me, by definition, the term should apply to very few people.

As the conversation continued, I realized what I was being asked for was a list of areas I feel I can write about with ease, given my legal training and my professional experience. Realizing this, I managed to answer, though I was careful to point out that though I feel conversant in certain areas, I don’t think of myself as an expert in any of them. Fortunately, my response seemed to satisfy and we moved on.

All the way home, however, I still felt uncomfortable, worrying that somehow I might have over-sold my skills. When I got home, I made a beeline to the dictionary to look up expert. Here’s how my dictionary (Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th Ed)) defines it:
1 very skillful; having much training and knowledge in some special field
Given this, I guess my earlier views about what it means was a bit narrow, which also means I can rest a bit easier because, in answering the question, I don't think I exaggerated or mislead. So there you are, further proof that the dictionary is your friend!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Word of the Week: callipygian

For those of you who don’t know the definition of this week’s word, according to Merriam-Webster OnLine it means “having shapely buttocks”.

Believe it or not, this word came up in a conversation I had recently with -- of all people -- my dentist. (No, he doesn’t moonlight as a plastic surgeon, at least not as far as I know!)

Because my dentist knows I make my living as a writer, as he walked into the room he quizzed me on whether I knew what the word meant. I didn’t. Then he launched into a funny story about an upcoming dental symposium he was going to. Apparently, one of the participants would be discussing something to do with asymmetry (presumably facial asymmetries) – but in the e-mail describing the session, asymmetry was misspelled. Yup, an extra “s” was used, making it: assymmetry. My dentist -- a lover of words and etymology -- apparently couldn’t resist replying to the e-mail. Though I’m paraphrasing, his response was something like he was looking forward to his first discussion of callipygian features at a dental conference.

Anyway, my dentist’s unbridled enthusiasm about the word (he didn’t just tell me the definition, he also told me the two Greek words it comes from) was a sweet reminder that sometimes words just tickle us. So, for Dr. Gardner’s reminder of the richness of words and language, I decided it deserves mention as word of the week.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Word of the Week: euphemism

I was at a seminar this week presented by a law firm. The topic was competition law and at one point the discussion turned to what could happen if the police come to your company’s offices to carry out a search warrant (for example, looking for proof of collusion or price fixing). The point was made that if companies keep documents beyond the legally required period, those documents are fair game in the event of a search.

Then, rather than recommend that companies destroy documents after the statutorily required time for keeping them, here’s what the lawyer recommended:

“So, companies should have robust record retention policies”.

When I heard that, the old song refrain: “You say to-mA-to, I say to-mAH-to” came to mind – or maybe a variation of it – something like, “You say euphemism, I say double-speak”.