Saturday, March 29, 2008

Word of the Week: under

This week I bought a new office chair that required some assembly -- five steps, to be exact. Step one involved putting the casters on the base. Step two involved attaching the metal “Seat Plate” to the seat cushion with four screws that had to be fully tighten (so the instructions said, in bold).

Step three involved attaching the Back Support Plate to the rear of the Seat Plate using four screws. The directions for this step included reference to “Detail A” -- an enlarged diagram of the Back Support Plate and the Seat Plate, which was shown already attached to the bottom of the seat, per Step 2. Along with the diagram, Detail A also specified: “Assemble Back Support Plate under Seat Plate”.

The diagram was a bit confusing because it just had an arrow showing the Back Support Plate and the Seat Plate coming together -- neither was actually shown under the other. Of course, there was the additional specification in words that said the Back Support Plate goes under the Seat Plate. But, to get the Back Support Plate under the Seat Plate I’d have to loosen the four screws I had just tightened per Step 2. Hmmm….

I re-read the instructions a number of times, wondering whether I should loosen the screws from Step 2 and proceed with Step 3. On about my 4th read of the instructions I noticed a toll-free number. It was for ordering parts, but I called it anyway.

Eventually I spoke with someone who claimed he knew how to assemble the chair. After some discussion (I know he assumed I was blond) he persuaded me NOT to loosen the Seat Plate screws to be able to slip the Back Support Plate under the Seat Plate. Instead, he told me to just put the Seat Plate on top of the Back Support Plate using four screws and tighten them up. That’s what I did -- and the seat is fine.

The rest of the afternoon I pondered how “under” could actually mean “on top of”. Finally I figured it out: under is relative to direction. For Steps Two and Three I had the chair seat upside-down because I was working on it (attaching parts to it). Interestingly, Diagram A also showed the chair seat upside down. But, the person who wrote the words describing the assembly was describing the parts relative to the way the parts are oriented toward each other when the chair is standing upright.

So, “under” is the word of the week because this story's a useful reminder that sometimes the definition of a word might be obvious, but to understand the word's meaning, you may need other information.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Word of the Week: practicable

I wrote this sentence in a newsletter I do for a client: “Of course, in deciding what steps to take, you’ll want to assess affordability, effectiveness, and whether they are practicable for your business.” The client circled practicable and wrote next to it: practical?

When I saw my client’s comment, I thought, “No, I meant practicable”. Frankly, I was even a bit irritated because I thought, “I wish they’d have looked it up – then they would have understood it was a fine word in that context.” Then, just to be sure I hadn’t misused the word, I looked it up.

Here’s how Merriam-Webster on-line defines practicable:

1 capable of being put into practice or of being done or accomplished: feasible 2:capable of being used: usable.
Though I was satisfied that practicable was appropriate, I had to decide whether I wanted to go back to the client and explain that practicable was fine. That’s when it dawned on me that if my client isn’t familiar with the word, chances are others won't be familiar with it either. After that, I realized that instead of expecting readers to look it up, or -- worse yet -- risk having readers assume it was a typo, I should simply choose a more straightforward word.

So, being one who tries to practice what I preach about using plain language, and looking back at the definition, I’m going to recommend “feasible” instead.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Word of the Week: untouchable

Ever engage in the game of free association? If you did, I’ll bet when you saw this week’s word you thought of the t.v. show about famed FBI agent Elliot Ness. Given the news this week about NY’s governor, if you’re still playing free association, I’ll bet the next word to pop into your head was Spitzer.

As unbelievable as this may sound, the day before Spitzer’s news conference a friend and I were debating the definition of untouchable. My friend said that untouchable referred to people in a low class in a caste society. I disagreed, saying I thought the word refers to people who are thought of as above reproach, a la Elliot Ness.

To my surprise, it turns out we were pretty much both right. According to my dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.) untouchable (the noun) is defined as 1.) an untouchable person or thing 2.) in India, any member of the lowest castes, whose touch was regarded as defiling to higher-caste Hindus.

I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit that my only reference to the word comes from an old t.v. show, but hey, at least by making it the word of the week, others whose familiarity with the term is similarly limited are now at least aware of the other definition.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Word of the Week: acronym

A friend mentioned a conversation he had this week where someone confused acronym with abbreviation. An acronym is a word that’s made up of the initial letter (or letters) of a series of words. My friend’s example of an acronym was scuba, which comes from self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. The example given in my dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.)) is radar, which was created from the words: radio detecting and ranging. Abbreviations, on the other hand, are just a shortened form of a word or phrase. My dictionary gives N.Y. as an example of an abbreviation

I suspect people confuse acronyms and abbreviations because they both start with “a” and because, like acronyms, abbreviations are often created by taking the initial letters of the words they represent. I think the easiest way of thinking about the difference is that acronyms are words that have come into common usage and mean something in the own right, while abbreviations are simply stand-ins for something else.

Mind you, it doesn’t matter that much if people aren’t clear on the difference between the definition of acronym and abbreviation. What does matter, however, is that people often use abbreviations (maybe assuming they’ve become common in their usage) without explaining what the abbreviation refers to. Sure, some abbreviations have become common enough that you don’t have to define them -- like U.S.A., a.m. and p.m. -- but in this age when every organization has its own alphabet soup of terms and initials used to refer to different thing, assuming everyone knows what you’re referring to when you merely give the initials of something is a recipe for confusion.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Definite vs. indefinite article

Pass me the book.

Pass me a book.

There's a difference between these two statements, right?

If I say to you, "pass me the book", either I'm assuming you know which book I'm talking about, or I should expect you to ask, "which book?" because "the" is a definite article, which means it signals something specific about the noun it modifies.

If I say, "pass me a book", then I can expect you to pass me any book -- it doesn't matter which book because "a" is an indefinite article, which means it does not refer to something specific.

I'm always surprised when people misuse definite and indefinite articles because the rules are pretty simple. Sometimes I think people are just sloppy when it comes to using definite and indefinite articles correctly. And, in the scheme of things, I guess folks don't think such sloppiness is a big deal.

But misuse of definite and indefinite articles creates confusion -- confusion that's avoidable. Here's a real-life example of what I mean: awhile back I responded to a request for proposals (RFP) where the organization issuing the RFP invited individuals who are communications consultants (referred to in the RFP as "prospective Proponents") to respond. According to the RFP, the organization was seeking, "... to retain approximately five individuals to provide [Communications, Advisory, Writing and Project Support] services ..." to the organization.

I thought it was unusual to have an RFP where an organization is looking for more than one person or organization, but that appeared to be the case. As RFPs usually do, prospective Proponents were permitted to submit questions for clarification. The questions and responses were made public so that everyone had the same information. A couple of the questions submitted made it clear that other prospective Proponents also found it unusual that the organization would be looking for more than one service provider, but the organization's response made it clear that was the case.

So, imagine my confusion when I got an e-mail yesterday from the organization that stated the organization "regrets to inform you that you have not been chosen as the successful candidate to provide Services for Communications Advisory, Writing and Project Support Services." On reading that, my first thought was, "I wasn't chosen as THE successful candidate?" But they specifically said they were looking for multiple service providers. Here, use of the definite article raises a question of whether, contrary to the wording of the RFP and the response to the questions, in fact, the organization intended to choose only one proponent.

On re-reading the e-mail, my guess is that the person who sent it used a standard response template (one used for RFPs where a single proponent is chosen) and simply cut and pasted in the description of the type of services sought. Fair enough, but such carelessness results in a lingering question about the organization's intent in issuing the RFP -- a result I'm sure the organization would have preferred to avoid -- and could easily have avoided if they'd have been mindful of the difference between definite and indefinite articles.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

National Grammar Day -- March 4th

SPOGG -- the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar -- is promoting Tuesday, March 4, 2008 as National Grammar Day. There's no indication on SPOGG's web site as to what nation they're talking about -- presumably the U.S. -- but as a (new) member of SPOGG, I feel comfortable encouraging my fellow Canadians to take part in the day's activities (On March 4th, march forth and spread the word...)

The web site is (as you'd expect) well written and entertaining -- so do check it out. While you're there, have a look at SPOGG's Top 10 Grammar Tips -- it's a great list. (I have to admit that I'm a bit biased, as I cover off most of those points in my writing seminars.)

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Word of the Week: whatever

You know, for the longest time, the hair on the back of my neck stood up whenever I heard a teen mumble: “whatever”. It wasn’t just the use of the word that bothered me; it was the unmistakable tone it was said in. (If you’ve ever heard a teenager use the word, you know EXACTLY the tone I mean.)

Well, I have to say -- as of this week, I’m changing my tune (no pun intended) on use (or misuse) of that poor pronoun. My change of heart came after the umpteenth e-mail I got regarding a volunteer event I’m working on where every little decision seems to required a dozen back-and-forth e-mails soliciting opinions. Finally, at one point (thankfully alone in my office), as I read one of the e-mails I just wanted to scream: WHATEVER!!!! (After regaining my composure, I chose the more adult route and simply sat back and withdraw from the electronic “dialog”, figuring at some point a decision would be made and my additional two cents weren’t going to add much.)

I guess the reason I thought this merits word of the week status is because it’s a good reminder that when it comes to spoken words, it’s often not just what you say that matters, it’s how you say it!