It’s good to be #1. And on a list of, say, a thousand items, it’s also pretty darn good to be ranked #7, or #17, or even #47. In fact, just being among the top 50 is really quite an accomplishment, don’t you think?

Yet business writers — particularly in marketing and PR — sometimes get a little consumed with rankings. Maybe this obsession comes from wanting to stand out from the competition, to communicate that you or your client is part of the elite, one of the best. And, for their part, organizations as disparate as U.S. News & World Report, the Zagat Survey, and the Bowl Championship Series feed the phenomenon, doling out top 100 lists and extensive rankings in a wide range of categories.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with this stuff, not really. Inclusion on a respected list might be worth an ad campaign or a press release. But my eyelid gets twitchy when I come across sentences like this one (and yes, I have encountered them):

Widgets International is a Fortune 19 manufacturing company based in Utopia, New York.

I mean, c’mon. There’s no such list as the Fortune 19. Everyone reading this sentence knows that. What you mean, if you must say it, is this:

Widgets International, ranked 19th on the Fortune 500, is a manufacturing company based in Utopia, New York.

The same thing goes for a statement like this one, the likes of which I see all the time:

Brickstone University is one of the top 43 colleges in the Southeast, according to U.S. News & World Report.

This is pure spin, trying to make more of your ranking than it is. But no one will be fooled into thinking that U.S. News just happened to stop its list at an off-round number of colleges like 43 and your institution made the cut as one of 43 equals. Give your readers some credit. Better yet, tell a truer story.

One more example — one of my favorites for its absurdity:

Day and Night Freight Services is one of the top two providers of shipping services in the metropolitan area.

Really? “One of the top two”? As the kids say: Dude. In this reckoning, you clearly came in second. And that’s still plenty respectable. Any of these edits says the same thing without the spin factor:

Day and Night Freight is one of the top providers of shipping services in the metropolitan area.

Day and Night Freight is the second-largest provider of shipping services in the metropolitan area.

Day and Night Freight is the #2 provider of shipping services in the metropolitan area.

I tell you, it’s enough to make an editor dizzy.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with complex sentences. In fact, if it’s well-crafted, a long, intricate piece of prose can be a source of great pleasure. John Updike, for example, was a master at this. Check out this passage from the first page of his novel In the Beauty of the Lilies (which I chose pretty much at random):

From this height the human eye could discern the strip of brick mills clustering about the Fall and its three millraces designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the dour but majestic brownstone spire of Father William Dean McNulty’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the white wedding-cake tower of City Hall, the fantastical varicolored Flemish façade of the Post Office, and the ribbed dome, not ten years old, of the Passaic County Court House, upon whose columned cupola a giant gesturing woman persistently kept her balance.

A single sentence of 84 words, built in such a way that we follow the syntax effortlessly and instead can enjoy flourishes like wedding-cake tower and columned cupola. Updike had a staggering talent, no?

In the marketing industry, writers are often given similar laundry lists — product features! reasons to buy! comprehensive services! — to work into their copy. But beware: the longer the list, the greater the danger of an unwieldy sentence. Here, for example, is a sentence that’s pretty much a worst-case scenario:

Required courses in digital media proficiency, professional practices, contemporary teaching environments and practice, and theory and criticism; ongoing group critiques; an off-campus practicum experience; and interaction with an active visiting artists program will comprise the curriculum, concluding with a thesis project, related written thesis, and oral defense.

Did you catch all that? Tough, isn’t it? The sentence has only half the words of the Updike passage, and yet it’s incredibly difficult to parse. What’s the difference?

Well, yes, the language is somewhat less rich. But that’s not the problem. You might notice that, in the latter excerpt, the list of curriculum items (and the lists within the list) appears up front. This construction can work fine for shorter clauses:

Four full semesters of course work, ongoing group critiques, and an off-campus practicum experience comprise the major part of the curriculum.

But in English, the kernel of every sentence is subject and verb. If our English-speaking brains can’t quickly zero in on those two entities, we get lost pretty easily. In the train wreck above, the subject is so lengthy, and so syntactically complex, that we readers lose our way before we get to the main verb, comprise. And once we find comprise, we have to backtrack to make sense of what the writer is saying. (At least, I do.)

In the Updike passage, on the other hand, we get to the subject and verb in the first eight words, and the seventy-odd words that follow all complete that main thought. Because we can quickly ascertain the central idea, we’re able to build extensively on that foundation.

Can we apply this idea to the other piece? Of course we can:

The curriculum will feature required courses in digital media proficiency, professional practices, contemporary teaching environments and practice, and theory and criticism; ongoing group critiques; an off-campus practicum experience; and interaction with an active visiting artists program. It will conclude with a thesis project, a related written thesis, and an oral defense.

Funny isn’t it? When your brain can latch on to the main subject and verb, it handles the same list with relative ease, because each item is completing a thought that it’s already encountered.

Bonus round: To simplify the paragraph even further, we can unpack the nested lists, like so:

The curriculum will feature required courses in digital media proficiency, professional practices, contemporary teaching environments and practice, and theory and criticism. The course of study will incorporate ongoing group critiques, an off-campus practicum experience, and interaction with an active visiting artists program; it will conclude with a thesis project, a related written thesis, and an oral defense.

So remember: In cases like these, treat your sentence like your car. If you have to load it up with a lot of stuff, it’s probably best to pack it in the trunk — not on the front hood.

As a sometime poet, I can’t deny that I love metaphors. When I’m reading, little delights me more than coming across a figure of speech that’s well crafted and well placed. Of course, metaphors and other figurative language have a robust life outside the narrow furrows of poetry. Using a good metaphor in a section of prose can be like adding a bit of butter or a handful of fresh herbs to a recipe: it can elevate the other elements and make the dish as a whole taste better. However, as is true in the kitchen, you have to carefully consider the other ingredients, and a little experience at the stovetop doesn’t hurt.

It’s worth noting, too, that even the best cooks slip up occasionally.

During my commute to work on Tuesday, I was listening to a story on NPR’s Morning Edition about increasing violence in Turkey. Early in the piece, I heard the reporter say this:

In June, rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared the cease-fire over. Since then, newscasts have once again featured a steady diet of spilt Turkish and Kurdish blood. [emphasis mine]

Yikes! As you can imagine, my mind quickly responded with a vivid and unsavory image, which distracted my attention long enough that I lost track of the narrative. My reaction, I’m sure, wasn’t what the news editors at NPR were hoping for. And while I’m reluctant to criticize any journalist with a beat as challenging as Peter Kenyon’s, this was one unfortunate juxtaposition that needed a rewrite.

Part of the issue here is that the phrase a steady diet is used often enough that it’s become a fixed expression in the collective lexicon — a cliché whose figurative meaning (“consistent input or output”) has lost touch with its original literal meaning. (More poetically, we might say that the metaphor’s tenor has eclipsed its vehicle.) And therein lies the danger.

Thoughtful writers and editors can try on various personae, imagining how different audiences might react to their work. This is a perfect example (and trust me, I’ve encountered many) of why it often pays to review your prose through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy. If anything makes him giggle or gross out, it’s probably a good idea to consider some revision.

With that in mind:

In June, rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared the cease-fire over. Since then, newscasts have once again featured countless stories of spilt Turkish and Kurdish blood.

In June, rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared the cease-fire over. Since then, newscasts have once again featured a steady diet of violence and bloodshed.

Okay, time for a quick quiz. The subject is irregular verbs, and answers will be accepted only if they’re spelled correctly. Remember to keep your eyes on your own paper, please.

Ready? Here’s Part One:

1. What’s the past tense of the verb breed?
2. What’s the past tense of the verb feed?
3. What’s the past tense of the verb speed?
4. What’s the past tense of the verb bleed?

Simple, right? Let’s try Part Two, then:

1. What’s the past tense of the verb read?
2. What’s the past tense of the verb lead?
3. What’s the past tense of the verb plead?
4. What’s the past tense of the verb tread?
5. What’s the past tense of the verb spread?

And . . . pencils down. How’d you do? Did you have any trouble? (You can check your answers at the bottom of the post.)

My point, I’m sure, is obvious: that’s there’s not much you can rely on when it comes to spelling and strong verbs. Why all the inconsistencies? Well, it has to do with the fact that these words are very old and that the English language has changed a good bit over the centuries, both in spelling and pronunciation. But I’m not an expert in historical linguistics, so let’s leave it at that.

However, even as a pretty jaded seen-it-all editor, I’m continually flabbergasted by the number of times I come across a sentence like this one:

We’re creatively lead and creatively driven.

Sorry, unnamed colleague. That should be led, not lead.

The source of the confusion? Maybe folks assume that it’s spelled the same way as the element lead (as in lead pipe or pencil lead — which of course is not actually lead, but never mind). Or maybe they’re unconsciously using the verb read as an analogue — which, as we saw in the quiz above, is a bad idea.

The upshot? Don’t be misled by your eye or your ear. This is one of those spellings that you may just have to memorize.

—————

Answers to Part One: 1. bred. 2. fed. 3. sped. 4. bled. Answers to Part Two: 1. read. 2. led. 3. pleaded or pled. 4. trod. 5. spread.

Let’s start with a hat tip: I have Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski to thank for reminding me of this month’s nine-letter word. (No, I don’t know the guy, except in a very 21st-century way: I follow him on Twitter.) Early this July, when the East Coast was suffering through some of its hottest weather for the year, he brought up the word in a witty and apropos tweet. And what a great word to highlight, too — not that we’d expect anything less from a lexicologist at the esteemed M-W.

August, however, is the month when the heat goes up and summer vacations wind down for most of the U.S., and that means school is right around the corner. Fittingly, the story of canicular takes us through half a day’s worth of classes — say, Latin, earth science, astronomy, and maybe that AP English class meant to raise your SAT score.

Even the most Latin-illiterate among us can probably make a connection between canicular and the more common word canine, right? Yeah, we’re dealing with something about dogs here. Canicular, in fact, is used to refer to anything having to do with the dog days of summer. And just what are the dog days? Growing up, I heard folks use the phrase pretty broadly to talk about any sustained period of hot weather. Turns out that there’s a slightly more precise meaning for dog days, namely (per Merriam-Webster again) “the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere.” Just reading that makes me reach for the thermostat.

But why are they called the dog days? When I was a kid, the term always called up the image of some pooch lying on the porch, panting in the heat. When my little brain stirred that around with words like hangdog and idioms like a dog’s life and dog-eat-dog world — I just figured it really sucked to be a dog, and the dog days are when everyone’s as miserable as a dog.

As you can probably guess, that’s not the connection. So what is? Perhaps you’ve heard of Sirius, the Dog Star — so called because it’s the located in the constellation Canis Major (“the big dog” — there’s that Latin canine connection again). It’s also the brightest star in the sky, so the ancients paid it close attention. Centuries ago, the Romans noticed that, during this annual period of hot weather, Sirius was rising on the horizon about the same time as the sun, and they figured the star was responsible for the heat. That’s when they coined the term dies caniculares — which eventually got translated to the English dog days.

This week, even though the dog days are still officially upon us, my part of the country is experiencing some milder temperatures. But despite the debt I owe Willis Haviland Carrier, I’m still rooting for one last blast of good canicular weather before Labor Day arrives.

Parenthetical phrases come in many stripes: the whispered aside, the not-so-brief digression, the explanatory remark, the wacky tangent. And, despite their moniker, they can be punctuated with commas, dashes, or parentheses, depending on their importance within the larger sentence. One thing is true of nearly all parentheticals, however: they are interruptions.

In speech, we interrupt our own utterances all day long, and our friends and colleagues keep pace easily. We skillfully and unconsciously augment what we’re saying with gestures, facial expressions, changes in pitch and tone of voice — all to help keep what we’re saying on track. Thanks to nonverbal and paraverbal cues like these, we can drop a parenthetical phrase just about anywhere in a spoken sentence, and whoever’s listening will follow along just fine.

In written English, of course, we don’t have such tools at our disposal. Our readers are stuck with just the words on the page and a few punctuation marks. That’s why it’s important to place parentheticals carefully, where they will cause the least disruption possible.

Take the following statement, for example:

Too few young women are entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers.

Spelling out what the acronym stands for is critical to understanding the sentence here, so the parenthetical phrase is important. But inserting it between the noun careers and its modifier is pretty awkward, and forces the reader to do some mental backtracking to piece the clause together. That’s a problem.

In most cases, the solution is pretty simple: examine the sentence’s structure and move the parenthetical to a place where a pause feels more natural. This is usually the end of the phrase or clause:

Too few young women are entering the STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, math).

Too few young women are entering the STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Poorly placed parentheticals crop up often in the writing I read. Business writers are usually trying to help explain or define some other element in the sentence. But they seem to get distracted by the relationship between the inserted material and the rest of the sentence — so much so that they end up using parentheses like wedges, cramming these phrases into awkward spots and, in the process, creating syntactic structures that are remarkably convoluted.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The bigger lesson here? I’ve said it before: trust your readers. They have undoubtedly encountered parenthetical phrases before, so give them some credit to connect the dots. Better yet, help them out by incorporating your parentheticals judiciously.

One last note, since our example features an acronym: For the love of Strunk and White, never, ever, do something like this:

Too few young women are entering the STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Again, have confidence that your readers can figure out what the acronym stands for without your resorting to such blatant typographic disrespect. Deal?

I’ve made brief reference at least once on the blog to the importance of precision in writing. And there’s plenty of material to be written about that. The crux of the matter, though, is having a good sense of the words you’re using and how they work together with each other. Does that sound simple? Well, often it’s far from it.

Let’s look at it mathematically for a second. In a 19-word sentence like this one, the writer has to consider the relationships between 171 pairs of words. To be sure, many of those interactions are tenuous or harmless (and much of the time, we assess them quickly and unconsciously), but that’s still 171 chances for a misstep. And as any pharmacist will tell you, all it takes is a single bad interaction between two items, and a patient’s life can be in danger.

Thankfully, the sentences that most of us write tend not to be life-and-death matters. Take a gander at this excerpt from a marketing case study:

The installation featured listening stations with large, high-definition screens that gave each guest one-on-one interaction with the organization’s cause.

Let’s zero in on the term one-on-one for a minute, making sure we have a good sense of its meaning. One-on-one describes a situation where two people at a time — and only two people — are involved. (In fact, the phrase was first used as a sports term.) That definition may seem pretty obvious, but it becomes important when we examine it in context with the larger clause and the full sentence.

At the event described here, we’re talking about a group of people, not just two, which by itself doesn’t disqualify the term. A room full of people can be experiencing one-on-one interaction — say, if they’re speed dating, or ballroom dancing, or playing Battleship. But here, it’s one person at a time interacting with a video screen, not another person. So one-on-one doesn’t quite fit. Another word, like individual, would be a better choice:

The installation featured listening stations with large, high-definition screens that gave each guest individual interaction with the organization’s cause.

For the bonus round, let’s ask a few more questions about the relationships between these words, keeping both precision and concision in mind. For example: Were the guests truly interacting with a cause, or with something less lofty? Can you really give someone interaction, or was some other type of action taking place? Also, is there any missing information that would help describe the event more exactly? Can we eliminate any unnecessary details?

After all of these issues are addressed, here’s one possible revision:

The installation featured listening stations with high-definition screens and headphones, where guests could interact individually with video about the organization’s cause.

Is your head spinning yet? This all may seem like we’re splitting hairs, but good writers and editors learn to skillfully navigate nuances like these, and their readers are all the better for it.

The word bailiwick goes back to the 1400s or so, originally used to describe the jurisdiction of a bailiff — who, back then, was someone hired to assist the sheriff. Today, however, the word is often used metaphorically to describe someone’s area of expertise or authority. I almost always see it used in the negative or adversative, such as “That’s not really her bailiwick,” or “That’s outside my bailiwick.”

Etymologically, you can divide the word neatly in two: The first half is from the Old French term for bailiff, and the second is from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning town or village. (The latter is undoubtedly the same suffix that shows up in place names and surnames like Berwick, Hartwick, Warwick, Fenwick, and Eastwick.)

So it’s a useful term for your vocabulary, not to mention a series of sounds that’s pleasant to say. But why do I like the word so much?

When I was thirteen, my parents bought me a subscription to a puzzle magazine called Games, and I became immediately enthralled. Every issue included articles, brain teasers, game reviews, and other delicious content, but I loved the magazine most because it introduced me to so many types of wordplay. Sure, it contained your run-of-the-mill crosswords and word searches — but there were also all manner of inventive puzzles that played with words and letters in just about any way imaginable: cryptic crosswords, word spirals, word flowers, word rummy, and lots more. Early on, I couldn’t complete many of the puzzles; nevertheless, I was hooked. Even today, when I’m gearing up for a plane ride, I make sure my carry-on contains a mechanical pencil and a fresh issue of Games from the newsstand.

What, you ask, does this have to do with the word bailiwick? Well, one recurring puzzle in the magazine featured a list of five-letter sequences plucked from inside common English words. The goal was to identify the source word for each string of letters. For example, given the clue TCHST, you had to come up with the word matchstick. Or, for EETOT, the solution might be teetotaler.

When you look at bailiwick, perhaps you first see the words bail and wick — solid words, so normal they’re downright boring. But me? My eye goes right to the three i’s at its middle, with only the lovely liquids l and w to separate them. And all I can see is trickery, because (as I’ve thought many times) the clue ILIWI would be quite a stumper. Gaze at the word long enough, and the dots of those lowercase i‘s just might start to wink and nod, like wildflowers in the English countryside, mischievously expressing their agreement.

Let’s be honest. Despite the many jeremiads written about the PowerPoint-ization of the content we encounter — some of them well-deserved — when it comes to writing for business, the bulleted list is here to stay. Yes, a list often serves as a poor substitute for a series of connected thoughts. Used carefully, however, a list can be a smart way to communicate information quickly. (Of course, the items in the list should be succinct and parallel, but that’s a discussion for another post.)

Whether you’re stacking your items next to typographical glyphs or stringing them out in running text, here’s something to consider: How do you introduce your list? My teachers and textbooks always seemed to recommend a phrase like as follows or the following, plus what’s sometimes regarded as the Vanna White of punctuation marks, the colon. In general, this isn’t bad advice. But sometimes there are more artful ways to accomplish the task.

Take a look at the following excerpt from a business pitch deck. (As usual, some nouns and verbs have been altered to protect the unenlightened.)

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, these elements will guide where the company is headed. These elements include:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

Conscientious writers are always creating lines like these to set up a list — sometimes even adding the following for extra credit. The problem here is that we have three sentences, each of which points forward to the bulleted items. By the time we reach the word include, it’s as though we’ve read three separate introductions for the list. This paragraph is begging for a little tightening work, don’t you think?

Okay. For starters, the final sentence is entirely superfluous. In fact, this is a pretty common verbal tic for writers, thanks to our overzealous English instructors. Despite what you might have learned in middle school, you often don’t need a line that explicitly states “the elements are as follows.” As it turns out, our friend the colon is not just a Vanna White, pointing out what’s already obvious (apologies to Ms. White). In fact, the colon can communicate this connection — it can, on its own, say something like “and here they are”:

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, these elements will guide where the company is headed:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

Now to tighten the introductory copy further . . .

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, they guide where the company is headed:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

And further . . .

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform each other and together guide where the company is headed:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

For my money, this is a great place to land. We’ve ended up with an intro that’s much more succinct and a colon whose use might even qualify as elegant. (You be the judge.)

And here’s one final thought: When the items in the list are short, like these, consider whether the bullets are necessary at all. You may find that the list works just as well run back into the paragraph:

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform each other and together guide where the company is headed: mission, vision, values, and objectives.

The larger lesson here? Trust your readers and their intelligence. Whether you’re writing a case study or a crime story, you’re always building an unspoken relationship with an audience. Using subtler cues can not only make your writing tighter; it can foster a better relationship with your readers, which is bound to make them more receptive to what you’re saying.

Hello, gentle readers.

Perhaps some of you have been anxiously checking the site, wondering when I’m going to get the next post up. Fear not. It won’t be long.

The quick version of the story: A couple weekends ago, after five good years, my home computer took ill. To stretch the metaphor, the problem isn’t inoperable, but the procedure isn’t cheap.

So, true to the American spirit of materialism, I decided to put that money toward a new machine, which arrived today. Once I get it up and running, I’ll be back in the blogging business.

Talk to you soon.

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