Category Archives: Grammar

Your guide to having style

style guide image

Is it “don’t” or “do not”; “can’t” or “cannot”? Can a subhead be a question? Is the hyphen necessary in “non-essential”? What’s the plural possessive of your company name? Is it even OK to modify the company name? These questions – and more – can pop into a writer’s head within minutes of working on your content.

The fastest way for writers to get the answers they need is to develop a thorough style guide. It ensures consistency throughout your materials – regardless of who writes or edits them – by providing quick and definite answers to common questions. Don’t have one yet? Follow these steps to create a style guide that will keep your copy consistent.

  1. Establish a baseline. Creating a style guide from scratch would burn through massive amounts of time and resources, so we suggest letting someone else do that work for you. Fortunately, you can pick from several existing guides, like the Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, The Columbia Guide to Online Style, Microsoft Manual of Style, The Yahoo! Style Guide, or – our go-to – the Associated Press Stylebook. Certain style guides are better for specific content or formats, so do a little research to see which one matches your needs.
  2. Break the rules the right way. Once you have a good starting point, create a list of your company’s exceptions to the style guide and preferences that aren’t covered. Note all spellings, hyphens, contractions and punctuation that contradict your chosen style guide. For example, do you use “adapter” or “adaptor”? “Percent” or “%”? By listing only exceptions to an established style, you’ll be able to keep your company’s style guide concise and easy to reference.
  3. Define rules around trademarks. Company names and trademarks don’t always conform to standard grammar. List constructions of your company’s trademarks to use or avoid so that issues don’t creep into your copy. Be sure to cover how you want writers to handle possessives, plurals and modifiers. For example, if you were working with Best Buy, would you say “multiple Best Buys” or change it to “multiple Best Buy locations” to avoid the plural company name? How would you choose to handle the possessive in “Amazon’s Prime subscription service,” versus “Amazon Prime’s subscription service” or “Amazon Prime subscription service”?
  4. Run through different formats. Common projects, such as newsletters, quarterly reports, presentations, brochures and postcards, might require separate style sheets to let writers know any differences or preferences that apply only to those formats. If you want to make sure that every bullet point in your brochures starts with a verb, put it on the style sheet. Don’t want to see any questions in your newsletter headlines? Put it on the style sheet so that your writers know what you want to see.
  5. Use it! Accessibility is key for keeping a style guide in use and updated. Make sure your writers have access to your baseline style guide, whether in print or online, as well as whatever style sheets apply to their assignments. Writers will love having a quick reference guide, and you’ll love not having to make the same changes repeatedly in the review process.

Are you happy with your company’s style guide? Let us know in the comments below.

Time ‘2 lern some grammer?’ #wordcrimes

word crimes, grammar, proofreading

Heralded as the original pop song parody artist, “Weird Al” has proved his worth yet again, as songs from his summer 2014 album, “Mandatory Fun,” have out-classed thousands of independent YouTube parodies of this year’s top hits. My personal favorite, “Word Crimes,” exposes “Weird Al’s” grammar-loving nature, while avoiding the easier and potentially offensive angles used by many independent parodies of this year’s controversial hit, “Blurred Lines,” by Robin Thicke and featuring artists T.I. and Pharrell Williams.

It’s not surprising that “Weird Al” has a penchant for grammar, as he’s shown time and time again that he knows how to manipulate song lyrics to fit predetermined music – and make it funny. That talent requires a sophisticated understanding of language, including many of the common problem areas that he mentions in “Word Crimes.”

A few of the problems he calls out are:

  • Less vs. fewer
  • It’s vs. its
  • Syntax
  • Dangling participles
  • Homophones
  • Whom vs. who
  • Good vs. well
  • Irony vs. coincidence
  • Figurative vs. literal

While a little bit of “Weird Al” goes a long way for me, I appreciate that he can inject a little grammar lesson into pop culture – you never know what will stick.

Are you surprised “Weird Al” has a thing for wording? Tell us why – or why not – in the comments below.

Watch the official video here.

 

What happens when spell-check can’t help (and what to do about it)

bear

Building relationships and trust with prospects and clients requires a jaw-dropping amount of work. Once you’ve established your organization as a credible, reliable and legitimate source of information, don’t jeopardize your efforts with embarrassing spelling errors.

Quality writing isn’t just for style junkies. If I were trying to earn your business and sent you marketing email with grammatical mistakes, would you hire me? Imagine the message that would send to your audience. If you’re not minding the details, why would they plunk down six figures for your new product?

Read more…

How to turn mediocre copy into tantalizing content

OK handWe’ve all been there.

You write the best blog post, ad, white paper, story or (fill in the blank) ever. And then someone dumps all over it. The red sea of edits and corrections makes you wonder what went wrong.

The thrill is gone.

But you can bring it back. Here’s how …

Know the five signs of copy drivel and avoid them like the bubonic plague. They’re content killers and they’ll take you down every time.

  1. Long sentences
  2. Wordiness
  3. Jargon
  4. Passive voice
  5. Random capitalization

Let’s explore these in-depth so that you’ll be able to recognize and fix them in your own writing.

#1: Long sentences

The shorter your sentences, the more readable they are. Aim for a maximum of 15 words per sentence, but don’t be obsessive about it. Look for opportunities to cut when you can. This sentence from a daily writing tips blog (for real) screams for hedge clippers:

“Although variety of sentence length occurs naturally, it’s a good idea, when it’s feasible, to recite your writing aloud to ensure that stacks of sentences of repetitively equal or nearly equal length aren’t slipping through.”

Whoa! I dare you to get through that without stopping for a breath.

How to fix it

Short sentences pack a punch. Use them liberally. You can even write one-sentence paragraphs to help readers breeze through your content.

Push yourself to trim your word count. Turn a 100-word e-blast into 50 words and then slash it to 25. If you’re feeling brave, cut another 10 words.

Now, let’s rewrite the tip above:

“Vary sentence length to grab readers’ attention. Read your copy out loud and then rewrite any monotonous sections to spice it up.”

Got it? OK, let’s move to the next sign.

#2: Wordiness

You can’t help yourself.

You fall prey to deadwood like “in order to,” “in need of” and “at the present time.”

Does this look familiar?

“If you’re in need of a refund, please contact the corporate office immediately in order to get your money back. The local branch is closed for repairs at the present time.”

How to fix it

Resist the temptation to use three or more words when one will do. Trim wordy phrases and your readers will thank you.

Use this cheat sheet to get started:

Avoid Replace it with
As a result of Because
At the present time Now
At that point in time Then
At this point in time Now
Due to the fact Because
In close proximity Near
In need of Need
In order to To
In the event that If
Make use of Use
Subsequent to After

Prune as many words from your copy as you can. It becomes easier the more you do it.

Ready for the next one?

#3: Jargon

Your audience expects you to use inflated words, right?

Wrong.

If you use business and industry jargon, you could alienate readers who aren’t familiar with those terms, as well as bloggers, journalists and others whose attention you’re trying to attract. You want your audience to read and act on your message. That won’t happen if they don’t understand it.

Try decoding this banking jargon:

“We must effect a needs assessment of the downturn in commercial lending package applications.”

Huh?

Translation: “We need to find out why no one is applying for loans.”

How to fix it

Impress readers with clear, concise and benefit-driven content – not bloat. Simple words are approachable and meaningful.

For example:

  • Choose “rules” instead of “methodology.”
  • Use “improve” instead of “optimize.”
  • Select “think” – not “conceptualize.”
  • Pick “avoid” rather than “circumvent.”

OK, on to #4.

#4: Passive voice

Fizzle or sizzle? It’s your choice.

Passive voice goes down like a can of pop that sat open on the counter for three days. It’s impersonal and unfriendly, and often produces ambiguous, unsatisfying sentences.

Here’s an example:

“The database contains 1 million veterans’ records and can be easily viewed and searched online.”

The first half of the sentence is fine. The rest doesn’t tell readers who can view and search the database.

Check these out. They’re all in passive voice:

  1. “Mistakes were made when the cars were produced on the assembly line on March 4.”
  2. “It was heard by Susan that a companywide audit was scheduled.”
  3. “Pat’s new car was driven too fast and the fender was scratched.”

How to fix it

Rewrite your copy in active voice. It’s easy: Determine who or what performs the action and use that as the subject of the sentence.

Now, let’s try those again:

  1. “The welders made mistakes when they produced the cars on the assembly line on March 4.”
  2. “Susan heard that the CFO scheduled a companywide audit.”
  3. “Pat’s son, Blake, drove the car too fast and scratched the fender.”

Last but not least …

#5: Random capitalization

“Hi, my NAME is [fill in the blank] and I have an overwhelming Compulsion to capitalize RANDOM words in my copy. Even Worse, I do it inconsistently. I Need HELP.”

Here’s the thing: Capitalization within a sentence implies a proper name, such as Anita Job or Acme Widget Co.

It confuses readers when you capitalize words or letters at will, such as “our Financial expertise,” and “I TRUST that you have Integrity.”

TRUST me – random capitalization doesn’t make a word inherently important.

How to fix it

If you want to emphasize a word or phrase, use bold text or italics, but don’t go overboard. Emphasize too much and you’ll diminish your point. Better yet, use plain text. It promotes readability and comprehension.

Take this example – it’s jarring to your audience:

“I’m happy to report that we’ve made excellent progress in reducing our PRICING MISHAPS, SHIPPING ERRORS AND BAD DEBT.”

Capitalizing these words is unnecessary and is the equivalent of SHOUTING AT YOUR READERS.

You’ve got this

The first step to turning ordinary copy into irresistible content is to apply these five fixes to your own work. It might take some practice, but everything worth doing requires a commitment. If this list intimidates you, master one or two and then work your way through the rest one at a time.

You can do it!

Do you have tips of your own for making middling copy magical? Let us know in the comments below.

He chose … poorly. What does your word choice say about your business?

Malapropism is one of my favorite words. It sounds like a deadly disease for old boats, but it means you said something that was really close to – but not quite – the word you meant … and people laughed.

Named for Mrs. Malaprop, the character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, “The Rivals,” the most commonly identified malapropisms come from literature (for comedy) and the world of the rich and famous (for a different kind of comedy).

Unfortunately, the hilarity of poor word choice is lost on the world of the busy and working.

Woman angry with word choice

So many words are so close, but not right – and that can jeopardize a lot more than your ego if you make one of these errors in a professional setting.

Word choice can make or break a sale, a piece of marketing or an email to the boss.

These commonly incorrect word choices have two dangerous characteristics: they sound or look very similar to the correct word, and spell-check usually won’t catch them, because they are all real words.

If not corrected, frequent mistakes such as these could give the impression that, for you, close enough is good enough. If you’re worried about these kinds of mistakes slipping through the cracks, we’d be happy to help!

Here are a few unfunny mistakes I’ve heard or seen recently. Can you spot the errors?

1. Rose makes spinach lasagna with a blend of mozzarella and regatta.

A regatta is a boating competition. Ricotta is an Italian cheese often used in lasagna.

2. Just as he was ready to leave, Bob realized he had displaced his wallet during the day.

Displaced means one thing was moved when something else forcibly took its place. Bob probably misplaced his wallet, which will be lost until he remembers where he put it.

3. She follows a strict training regiment so she’ll be ready for the marathon in August. 

A regiment is a combination of military battalions. A regimen is a systematic plan.

4. The mail delivery riled up the dog every morning, but delivery trucks didn’t phase him.

A phase is an aspect or stage. To faze is to embarrass or disturb.

5. The consultant was able to keep an objectionable point of view since the decision wouldn’t affect him either way.

Objectionable means disagreeable or offensive. Objective, in this case, would mean he was able to guard his perspective from personal bias.

Have you seen or heard any word choice blunders recently? Let us know in the comments below.

How to be smart in a world of dumb punctuation!!

red penBeing an editor comes with occupational hazards. Knowing that Sept. 24 is National Punctuation Day is one of them. It also means I have the overwhelming urge to correct errors in every sign, menu, invitation, postcard and email I receive.

Does Punctuation Rock Your World? If it doesn’t, it should. Here’s why: Punctuation creates order from chaos and makes sentences clear and easy to understand. In honor of National Punctuation Day, let’s look at some commonly abused punctuation:

The apostrophe

While I can dispel the rumor that a puppy dies with every misplaced apostrophe, the end of days gets closer when you don’t grasp the difference between “its” and “it’s.” “It’s” is short for “it is” or “it has,” so you need the apostrophe. If you mean something else, skip the apostrophe.

The comma

True or false: You know, really, that you need a lot of, well, you know, commas to make your, you know, point, right? False. Don’t use commas to set off essential words and phrases from the rest of a sentence. Essential words and phrases are important to the meaning of a sentence.

The exclamation point

Use it sparingly to express strong emotion or surprise. For example, you wouldn’t write, “Wow, the Earth just rotated on its axis!” It states the obvious. On the other hand, you would write, “A werewolf just stole my car!”

Check out more tips about punctuation here. You can also learn about dashes here and parentheses here.

What are your punctuation pet peeves? Let us know in the comments below.

Keep it short and sweet

scissorsMarketers are certainly changing things up. Now, more than ever, they’re offering up-to-the-minute news and relevant information for their audiences. Why? Prospects and customers are on the hunt for thought leaders and the need is growing rapidly. Whether on social media, in publications or through blog posts, people want to know what’s happening today, what’s next and how they can achieve their goals quickly.

While demand for relevant content is on the rise, attention spans are shrinking. Be concise when sharing tips, industry news and other information. Studies show that people prefer a less-is-more approach for videos, podcasts, white papers and more.

MindTools.com offers these tips for brevity:

  •  Can you delete any adjectives or “filler” words? Eliminate words and phrases such as “for instance,” “you see,” “definitely,” “kind of,” “literally,” “basically” and “I mean.”
  • Are all the sentences necessary?
  • Have you repeated any points?

Whether you’re writing a blog post, shooting a video or working on a case study, stay focused on the message, prioritize information and summarize.

How do you get to the point quickly in your messaging? Share your tips in the comments below.

Contributing to the English language

Dictionary“If he or she makes more than $250,000 annually, then his or her refund is reduced by $2,100.”

You’ve no doubt read a sentence like this and wished our linguistic forefathers had used a little more linguistic foresight before creating such a cumbersome way to describe this well-compensated, gender-neutral person who’s now out a few thousand dollars.

Read more…