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.

When I hear the word barnstorm, I always see the same picture in my mind: a brightly painted biplane flying low over a sunny stretch of farmland. It turns out, however, that the word predates stunt pilots and flying machines. Merriam-Webster traces the word to 1883, twenty years before the Wright Brothers truly got airborne.

Originally, barnstorm was used in talking about theater troupes who toured 19th-century rural America. I’m no etymologist, but it seems no great stretch to imagine that these amateur thespians staged their performances in local barns. Later, when itinerant politicians and promoters crossed the countryside in similar fashion, the term came to be applied to them as well.

For me, however, the word evokes the county fairs and carnivals of yesteryear, all summer days and azure skies. The heyday of barnstorming was brief: just a few years in the 1920s, before high-profile accidents and safety regulations grounded most daredevil pilots. But its impression on the nation’s psyche remains.

And why not? We’re talking the stuff of classic Americana: plenty of danger and skill, mixed with a bit of foolhardiness, served up with lots of noise and speed, all to entertain the masses. Why, barnstorming might just have been the Avatar of its day.

Even the word itself is a feat of engineering, almost too unwieldy for flight — thanks to seven heavy consonants, carefully balanced between two syllables. And that’s exactly why I love barnstorm: for its delicious heft in the mouth, its Anglo-Saxon-ness. (Both barn and storm, as you might guess, have roots all the way back in Old English.)

Watch carefully, though, as those two open vowels, like propellers, not only get the thing off the ground, but send it soaring with surprising grace. Sure, I enjoy roller coasters and action flicks as much as the next guy. But a word like barnstorm? That’s enough to really take my breath away.

Precise writing is hard to come by some days. We editors do our part to promote precision, diagnosing and treating maladies like adverb-itis and waffle syndrome. (See also: Make a compelling statement! Plant a stake in the ground! Say something without hedging!) But sometimes, a writer can’t be exact and needs to do a little approximating, like in this example:

Among those who qualify, about 20 to 40 percent advance to the second round.

Writers have many tools for approximation. Using a word like about or approximately is one common technique; quoting a range of figures (as in “x to y percent”) is another. But using both, as the writer has done here — especially with an already wide range of percentages — feels downright vague. When I read something like this, the writer’s credibility takes a small hit, leaving me to wonder, “Really? You couldn’t narrow it down further?”

Thankfully, the options for correcting such a problem are numerous. Here are a few ideas, depending on the data the writer has access to:

Among those who qualify, 20 to 40 percent advance to the second round.

Among those who qualify, between 20 and 40 percent advance to the second round.

Among those who qualify, about 35 percent advance to the second round.

Among those who qualify, about one third advance to the second round.

I’ll get back to writing with precision in future posts. In the meantime, keep an eye out for writing that approximates, and make sure your own examples are as tight as they can be.

I’ve been a grammar geek for a long time. Diagramming sentences was something I used to do for fun in school. (No, seriously.) In particular, I can remember reveling in the longish Latinate terms I encountered in my junior-high English textbooks: terms like predicate nominative and objective complement and correlative conjunction. Especially correlative conjunction. The word correlative is just fun to say.

We use correlative conjunctions all the time. They’re pairs of words — like both . . . and and either . . . or — which connect parallel items. Prose writers find them useful when they’re building complex sentences. In my mind, they help readers navigate trickier syntactic paths, kind of like those colored symbols that mark hiking trails.

Both . . . and is probably the most common correlative conjunction, but it does come with one stipulation. It can be used only with two items — not three, not four, not more. The correct format is “both A and B.” I know, I know: this sounds obvious and intuitive. But you might be shocked at how often I encounter a statement like this one:

These trends affected both our selection of case studies, our recommendations, and our strategy.

See the problem? The basic construction here is “both A, B, and C.” And that doesn’t work, since both by its very definition refers to a pair of things. Fix the problem either by deleting both . . .

These trends affected our selection of case studies, our recommendations, and our strategy.

. . . or by reducing the number of items to two.

These trends affected both our recommendations and our strategy.

It’s that simple. And in case you were wondering, some correlative conjunctions work just fine — even elegantly — with more than two items.

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.

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