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.)

I know what you’re thinking.

If you’re new here (and if you’re reading this post, you likely are), I’d bet that you’re scratching your head at the two words you see at the top of your browser window.

“Green Caret”? That’s weird. What in blazes does that mean? Is that even spelled right? Or wait — surely he’s not talking about vegetables. Is he? Is this some bizarre metaphor? Or is this guy just a little crazy?

Fair questions, every one. Let me see if I can explain.

I cut my professional proofreading teeth at a couple places: at an engineering firm and in the publishing industry. When I freelanced for the book publisher (ever hear of the “Dummies” books?), I was asked to use a red pencil, and I didn’t give it much thought. At the engineering firm, when I pinch-hit for the full-time proofreader, I used her pen of choice, a bright pink Uniball. In both cases, the aim was obvious: to make your edits as hard to overlook as possible.

But in both jobs, I couldn’t help feeling a little twinge whenever I marked up a particularly, shall we say, troubled document. I come from a whole family of teachers, and there was no denying it: it looked like I’d been grading papers. And that comparison didn’t sit well with me.

In college, my favorite professor, who taught English and writing and became a good friend, graded with a collection of felt-tip calligraphy pens. Don’t misunderstand — she didn’t write with ornate lettering or elaborate flourishes — rather, her comments appeared in the margins in a legible and distinct but ordinary cursive hand. Sometimes the ink was brown or black or green; most often it was blue. But she steered clear of red, and that seemed to make her feedback a little easier to swallow. (Her personality, of course, had much to do with that, but the blue ink didn’t hurt.)

Years later, when I landed my first full-time editing job, it was a brand-new position. The company had never had a proofreader or editor before. I was nervous (heck, I was in my twenties). Wanting to put my best foot forward — and not wanting to be pigeonholed as the schoolteacher on the fourth floor — I decided to follow my professor friend’s example and forgo the adversarial red pen. So I considered my other options: Black? Blue? Too ordinary, and too easy to overlook. Purple? Too weird. Pink? Hard to read. That pretty much left green. So when I placed my first request for office supplies, I asked for a dozen green ballpoints. And my die was cast.

I’ve been using green pens at work ever since. I’ve changed models a few times, but I use green almost exclusively. Since I work in marketing, folks joke about how it’s my brand. They’re right, of course.

And what about the “caret” part? A caret is a proofreader’s mark that looks like a small wedge or arrowhead (like this: ^). It’s used in the business to indicate a place where something should be added: a missing comma, a left-out letter, a suggested sentence. It’s one of the most commonly used marks in an editor’s arsenal — and, as my colleagues over the years have discovered, I give it quite a workout. And since I’m recognized for my green pen, well, there you have it: the green caret.

The green caret is a symbol that puts a personal spin on what I do. But it also represents what this blog’s about. Here I hope to weigh in on a range of topics, most of them related to editing, proofreading, and working with words in general. Check back from time to time, and see if you like what you read. Respond in the comments, or shoot me a message here. I’ll do my best to reply. After all, I’ve become known as the guy who always has something to add.

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