You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2010.

You won’t see too much content here at Green Caret about math. Like many writers and editors, I am unapologetically a word person. But (perhaps unlike many writers and editors) I also enjoy working with numbers, and — thanks to an accountant father who trained me early — I can rock a ten-key better than most.

Basic math skills come in handy in my line of work more often than you might think. Consider the following passage:

The 56 survey respondents were not representative of the community, where Native Americans and Blacks each make up one-third of the population. The majority of respondents were Caucasian, with only 0.89% Black and 0.017% Native American. Future studies should include efforts to increase diversity in the survey sample.

If there’s one lesson I learned from doing story problems throughout my educational career, it’s this: Even if your computations seem accurate, look at your final answer and ask, “Does it make sense?” When we apply that common-sense test to the figures in the example, things don’t quite add up.

For example, take a look the figure 0.89%. That’s less than 1%, and 1% means one person out of 100. However, this survey had only 56 respondents, so 0.89% translates to less than one person here! Something is clearly amiss.

Let’s back up and redo the math, dividing integers by 56. Rounding to three places, we get these results:

1 ÷ 56 = 0.017
2 ÷ 56 = 0.035
3 ÷ 56 = 0.054
4 ÷ 56 = 0.071
5 ÷ 56 = 0.089

Any of those numbers look familiar? Sure they do. It looks like the writer got a little confused with moving the decimal point. And hey, there’s no shame in that: it’s been a long time since any of us first learned about percentages.

Remember that 100% equals one (or 1.00). So to convert from a fraction to a percentage, you move the decimal two places to the right.

1 ÷ 56 = 0.017 = 1.7%
2 ÷ 56 = 0.035 = 3.5%
3 ÷ 56 = 0.054 = 5.4%
4 ÷ 56 = 0.071 = 7.1%
5 ÷ 56 = 0.089 = 8.9%

Percentages are always bigger than decimals — that’s why we use them, because whole numbers are easier to grasp than fractions.

With that in mind, let’s look at what’s most helpful to the reader here. With only 56 people in the group we’re talking about, it probably makes sense to talk about the actual number of respondents, especially when it comes to a single Native American individual. (Isn’t it kind of ridiculous to say that the group is 1.7% Native American when that 1.7% equals one person?) However, it’s still important to include the percentages, because the writer is making a comparison with the racial make-up of the community.

Here’s where I ended up with the passage:

The 56 survey respondents were not representative of the community, where Native Americans and Blacks each make up one-third of the population. The majority of respondents were Caucasian, with only five Black (8.9%) and one Native American (1.7%). Future studies should include efforts to increase diversity in the survey sample.

Better, right? Not only are the numbers now accurate, but they also work a little harder for the reader.

Who says all those story problems you did were good for nothing?


This query comes from a colleague who had to refer back to 2005 in a piece he was writing.

Q: When one refers to a named natural disaster, such as hurricane Katrina, is the “h” up or down?

A: Chicago and AP agree: capitalize names of storms (“Hurricane Katrina”). Of course, you’d use lowercase if you’re not using the storm’s name, even if it still refers to a specific storm. Note the three uses of hurricane here:

Someday, Hurricane Katrina may be known as the New Orleans hurricane of 2005. To folks on the Gulf Coast today, it’s known as “Katrina” or just “the hurricane.”

You could probably make a case for a cap H on the last word, but it’s correct as it stands. Both style guides also emphasize that you should use the pronoun it, not she or he, when referring to named storms.


Have a question of your own? Drop me an email at greencaret[at]gmail[dot]com.

Here’s one that’s quick and easy.

I’ve heard the term end result a good bit during my years in the marketing industry. And I bet you have too, no matter where you work. It’s an expression that has made its way into business parlance, and from there into everyday English. No one seems to talk about a result anymore; it’s always an end result.

Now, I suspect the phrase was originally coined with good reason: to differentiate a final outcome from preliminary results. Perhaps the term still is quite useful in some industries — say, health care, where such a distinction can be critical.

But when I see it used in the business world, 99 percent of the time, no such nuance is at work. (I’d stake my salary on that percentage.) Instead, it’s just a redundant phrase — a tautology, if you’re into fancier Greek-type words.

So what’s the allure? Why waste your breath on the extra syllable? I’m fascinated by that question, actually. And I think that it may be related to the culture of the corporate cubicle farm.* Stick with me for a second.

We all use language daily to communicate on several levels. Sure, there are the literal words we’re speaking or writing, but the message we’re trying to convey is often more complicated. Consider the last time you heard, “Well, that’s just great” delivered with biting sarcasm, and you’ll see what I mean.

In the workplace (and elsewhere), we often choose language in the hope of telegraphing ideas about ourselves — messages like “I’m intelligent” or “I’m valuable” that make us look better. Granted, this isn’t unique to corporate environments, but it seems a little more prevalent in that atmosphere, where the stereotypical dynamic can be downright cutthroat.

So when someone writes, “These advertising strategies are customer-centric,” maybe she’s unconsciously trying to sound savvy. When someone says, “What’s the end result of this scenario?” — using two words, not one, that mean “outcome” — maybe he’s hoping others see him as a no-nonsense guy who cuts to the chase.

It’s just a theory.

And in case you haven’t figured out how to tighten up the phrase end result, the fix is simple. Use your delete key to get rid of the word end.


*Disclosure: I haven’t worked in a cubicle since the late ’90s, and I’m grateful for that. But I’ve encountered many cubicle dwellers since then, and I still think I might be on to something.

The word plethora means “excess” or “overabundance.” Over the years, however, it’s become popular (particularly in the phrase a plethora of) as a fancy but misguided way of saying “a lot.” Take, for example, this sentence which appeared in the draft of an article about a university production that got some national coverage:

The magazine referred to the show as dazzling and posted a plethora of opening night pictures on its site.

Does the writer intend to imply that the magazine posted too many pictures? I doubt it. So let’s not mince words: using the term like this is just plain wrong. The estimable Bryan Garner — who is neither slouch nor schoolmarm — backs me up here, noting the phenomenon and calling it “an unfortunate degeneration of sense.”

Really, though, I think that’s being rather kind. To be honest, when I see or hear the phrase misused like this, my knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss the writer as a linguistic dilettante. Strong words, I know. But for my ear, it goes beyond the usage issues: I always think plethora sounds hackneyed and smells a bit of self-importance.

The book includes several thematic units, each with a plethora of activities that could be modified for the classroom.

Lucky for us, avoiding the word couldn’t be easier: there are a plethora of plenty of synonyms to choose from:

The book includes several thematic units, each with a profusion of activities that could be modified for the classroom.

The book includes several thematic units, each with a wealth of activities that could be modified for the classroom.

The book includes several thematic units, each with an abundance of activities that could be modified for the classroom.

Are those examples a bit high-flown for your tastes? You could always edit to make the statement more direct or more specific:

The book includes several thematic units, each with many activities that could be modified for the classroom.

The book includes several thematic units, each with dozens of activities that could be modified for the classroom.

Now, I realize that when we’re talking about large quantities, hyperbole is the name of the game: There was tons of food at the party; I have a million reasons not to call him back; her position on the issue is light years away from mine. But the case of plethora has two lessons to teach us: First, this type of overstatement is best suited for casual communication, not professional writing. Second, it’s best to steer clear of a ten-dollar word if you’re not entirely sure what it means.

Don’t pretend it hasn’t happened to you. You run across a word in an article online, and you realize with a start that you’ve been spelling it wrong for years. Or you hear a colleague use a phrase in a meeting, and you wonder why she pronounces it differently than you do — and which one of you is right. Or you find yourself stumbling over a word in conversation because you’re suddenly conscious of the fact that you’ve never actually pronounced it out loud. Sound familiar? It certainly does to me.

In cultures like ours, where the language of the printed page often bears little resemblance to the stuff we actually say, such confusion is inevitable from time to time. (This isn’t to say that spoken English is inferior to standard written English; the two lexicons just tend to vary widely.)

A case in point: A few months ago, at the office, I came upon the phrase by in large, and suffered a moment of self-doubt. A quick search of my electronic dictionary confirmed that, yes, the correct term is by and large. And I’ll admit it: I felt pretty self-satisfied for a minute.

But, honestly, my smugness was misplaced. For someone who’s never encountered the term in print, the mix-up is understandable: unless you’re speaking very carefully, the two versions of the phrase sound identical. And most of us who use the idiom have no clue to its literal meaning — which doesn’t help us in getting it right. (If you’re curious, the phrase traces back to the lingo of 17th-century sailors. Language maven Michael Quinion at World Wide Words offers a thorough explanation.)

By the way, there’s a special name for mistakes like this one, which are based on a pair of words or phrases that sound similar. They’re called eggcorns. And they’re more prevalent than you might think.

What about you? What “ear misses” have you discovered or encountered? Drop a line in the comments section. You can even pretend the mistake is someone else’s.

Sometimes it’s the littlest things that elevate your writing. Take the word oftentimes: an upstanding member of the English language since the 14th century.

But when it crops up in business writing, I have yet to find a case where replacing it with often doesn’t improve the sentence — if only slightly. Take for example the following line, cribbed from some marketing copy I encountered on the job:

However, oftentimes, these women don’t know what CXX even does.

First, this shows that writers like to “front” the word oftentimes in a sentence — and there’s nothing wrong with that in principle. But rhythm is important, even in professional prose, and dropping that one syllable would make this roll a little easier. (That’s because oftentimes has a metrical pattern called an dactyl. Yes, I’m also a poetry geek.)

However, often, these women don’t know what CXX even does.

Even more important, though: here we already have a sentence opener in however. Doubling up means two commas, and two pauses, which slows things down even further. Better to move the adverb often further in, closer to the verb it modifies. This gets the sentence moving quicker and tightens things up overall.

However, these women often don’t know what CXX even does.

For the bonus round: I’d move even as well, placing it so that it clearly modifies the verb know (instead of does). This better reflects what the writer probably intended anyway. It’s a fine point, but then, we are talking about the little things here, right?

However, these women often don’t even know what CXX does.

So remember: save oftentimes for more casual or poetic writing, and when you see it at work, take 50 percent off. It’s a minor savings, but hey — these things add up.

The word aubergine simply means eggplant.

Now the eggplant may seem like a rather homely offering from the garden. Granted, its culinary appeal is far from universal (though I would contend that many folks have never tasted it well-prepared). But I’ve come to enjoy cooking with it as an adult, and I’ve been a fan of its skin’s midnight purple — which can also be called aubergine — since I was a kid.

Botanically, the plant’s closest cousins include the humble potato and tomato. The word’s pedigree, however, is downright exotic. You can probably guess that English borrowed it from the French, who rounded its vowels and softened its consonants, but its etymological journey traces back through Catalan and Arabic, into the unwritten history of Persia.

To fully appreciate the word aubergine, you have to say it aloud. So go on. (No one’s listening.) Draw out the spacious oh, big and round like the vegetable’s end. Travel the length of the second syllable, moving through the r to the luxurious buzz of the lazy g. Then finish up at the stem end, with the smaller ee vowel and the resonant n. It’s delicious, I tell you — better than eggplant parmigiana.

If you’re going to add the term to your own lexicon, be aware that it’s mostly the Brits and Aussies who use it for the vegetable. Here in the States, it’s usually the color we’re talking about. Either way, it’s quite common: a quick search at Google News shows the word cropping up most often with regard to cooking and fashion.

Oh, aubergine: such a delight for the eyes, the ear, and the palate.

Business writing is full of phrases like the one below, where complex adjectives are paired up with the copula (the verb to be). Constructions like this allow the writer to use important-sounding adjectives like integrative and applicable, but they remove the reader a level or two from the action.

learning experiences that are integrative and applicable to associates’ jobs

Now, please understand: I’ve got nothing against the be verb or polysyllabic adjectives. But verbs are a sentence’s lifeblood. They communicate what’s happening, and that action is what propels phrases, clauses, and paragraphs forward.

Here, however, two perfectly good verbs — integrate and apply — lie beneath a few coats of syntactic polyurethane. And with them unavailable, the writer has glued the phrase together with are, one of the feeblest verbs in English.

Worse yet, obscuring the verbs has let a mismatched preposition sneak through. The word integrative is questionable to begin with, but like integrate, it should take the preposition with, not to.

Confused yet? Okay. First, let’s extract the verbs from the adjectives and clean up the prepositions.

learning experiences that can be integrated with and applied to associates’ jobs

Better. Removing the passive voice will further improve things. Depending on who’s doing the action, that looks like this:

learning experiences that associates can integrate with and apply to their jobs
learning experiences that we can integrate with and apply to associates’ jobs
learning experiences that you can integrate with and apply to associates’ jobs

Bonus round: Does it still sound a little clunky to your ear? Yeah, mine too. Adding the word with (still a necessary correction) has complicated things a bit. So let’s consider the meaning here. There’s a case to be made for some overlap between the ideas of integrating and applying. I’d examine the surrounding sentences and see if we could do without one of the two verbs:

learning experiences that associates can integrate with their jobs
learning experiences that associates can apply to their jobs

If the context allows it, then we’re golden.

You’ll see more posts from me on this topic as the blog continues. But for now, keep your eyes open for hidden verbs in your writing — particularly any that appear with a word like is or are or being. Then try your hand at a little verb extraction, and see how it goes.

This category is where I let my inner curmudgeon out to play for a bit. (Actually, he doesn’t play so much as rant and kick and tear up the grass. Oh well.)

So, yes, I know that centric has been an English word in good standing since the late 16th century. I’m also aware that it’s a perfectly acceptable suffix — how better to describe Galileo‘s heliocentric view of the universe?

What makes my eye start to twitch is how the suffix is used in business writing. Do you come across this as often as I do? Marketing philosophies are customer-centric. Direct mail tactics are audience-centric. Web navigation is user-centric. Enough! This buzzword (buzz affix?) needs to have its credentials revoked.

But it’s a particularly entrenched bit of jargon. Its staying power probably has to do with the fact that it seems like a pithy way to communicate an critical idea: what’s at the center, what’s most important. And that’s an attractive prospect in the business world, where it’s often hard to peel away the baloney and get to the heart of the matter.

The problem is that a term like customer-centric or user-centric is virtually meaningless, relying on a metaphor that’s vague and insubstantial at best. Plus, this particular conceit — that your customer is really, really important to you — is one of the biggest corporate clichés out there.

My quick fix is usually to substitute -centered for -centric. Granted, this doesn’t really address the problems I detail above, but it’s a small improvement. The better solution, of course, is to figure out what you’re actually trying to communicate, and then say it. For example:

The website features multiple audience-centric ways to navigate.

Any of the following sentences does a better job making a statement that’s specific and focused:

The website’s navigation features different paths for different audiences.
The website’s five navigation paths target five different audiences.
Users can navigate the website in several ways, based on what they’re looking for.

So, that’s the case against -centric. What do you think? Persuasive? Or poppycock? Speak up, if you like, in the comments section.

When it comes to writing, I’ll never argue that using fewer words is automatically better. But in most professional writing — and particularly in the marketing industry, where I work — it’s important to make every word count. That’s what I like to call writing tight.*

So consider the following phrases, temporal expressions that I encounter consistently:

on a daily basis
on a weekly basis
on a consistent basis
on a regular basis
on an occasional basis
on an intermittent basis

The trouble? Look closely, and you’ll see that these phrases are just adverbs dressed in extra clothes. My advice is to strip down a construction like this so that its “-ly” is showing.

on a daily basis → daily
on a weekly basis → weekly
on a consistent basis → consistently
on a regular basis → regularly
on an occasional basis → occasionally
on an intermittent basis → intermittently

Occasionally, I run across an example that sounds a little more bizarre:

The committee meets only on an as-needed basis.

The version below is shorter, yes — but also easier to read. Wouldn’t you agree?

The committee meets only as needed.

*(Note to pedantic grammarians: tight and tightly are both valid adverbs.)


March 2010
%d bloggers like this: