Tag Archives: language

How to become a better writer

I’ve recommended Doris and Bertie’s Good Copy Bad Copy blog before as a source of good ideas for writers. Their 50 super-quick business writing tips article begins with,

Doris and Bertie logo1. Each time you sit down to write, remind yourself of this sobering fact: “nobody has to read this”.

continues through

5. Don’t follow “we’re different because…” with clichés about “adding value” and “innovative solutions”.

and winds down with

48. Ruthlessly delete everything that’s not important to your reader (even if it’s important to you or the person who briefed you).

I agree with these tips. Although Doris and Bertie target a business audience, these suggestions could have been written by George Orwell or Winston Churchill, who spoke clearly to everyone. These masters expressed candor, rationality, and resolve, and sprinkled in just enough humor to keep us coming back for more.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

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Clear Business English

Cliché-drenched confused writing is so common in corporate communications that I must take note when I find someone who writes clearly.

I was pleased to discover a blog that’s maintained by a U.K.-based copywriting firm that shares my communication values. The blog is Good Copy, Bad Copy. Its owner, Doris & Bertie, describes it as A blog about good business writing and bad. Especially the bad. Because there’s so much more of the bad. Their writing contains

No “leveraged synergies” or “integrative frameworks”. No “holistic solutions” or “ideating roadmaps”.

Apple Inc.

In their article titled Are jargon-weary investors ditching Apple?, Doris & Bertie point out that Apple’s investor relations webpage has recently become jargon-cluttered:

It’s hard to be sure, but this text appears to be saying: “we’ve jigged a few columns around to make the figures look better”. Hardly instils confidence, does it?

They point out that

JJB Sports, Clinton Cards and Kodak are all examples of ailing firms that have hidden a poor performance behind the kind of pretentious, highly abstract biz-blather Apple now seems to be adopting.

Incidentally, we’ve also noticed that, post-Jobs, Apple has begun talking to its customers in the kind of mealy-mouthed corpspeak that was previously the preserve of its competitors.

Biz-blather! What a perfect expression. Elsewhere, David Pollack writes

Whatever you think of Jobs – he was a great communicator. Another of the small details that made Apple so different, so successful. Now they’re beginning to appear like just another corporate megalith.

The Good Copy, Bad Copy blog makes good reading. I wish that more business people would follow their suggestions.

Visit my website: http://russbellew.com
© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

“Methodology” strikes again

I watched a recorded telecom-related webinar that was hosted by a federal agency. Early in her presentation, the national program coordinator displayed a list of tasks, with one task per line. The list was prominently labeled Methodology. Then Ms. Program Coordinator referred to her list of tasks as the program methodology.

Ackk! A five syllable word, incorrectly used, when two syllables would have been accurate! I’ve ranted about this stupid use of pretentious language before. I like Wiktionary’s definition of methodology:

The study  of methods used in a field.

(proscribed) A collection of methods, practices, procedures and rules used by those who work in some field. The implementation of such methods etc.

Usage notes: Etymologically, methodology refers to the study of methods. Thus the use of methodology as a synonym for methods (or other simple terms such as means, technique, or procedure) is proscribed as both inaccurate and pretentious.

I admit that after witnessing this pretentious and inaccurate use of language, my opinion of the presentation, its presenter, and the program dropped a notch or two.

I’m not alone. From Ugh! Those pretentious expressions:

As soon as I hear “methodology” or “holistic” or “at the present moment in time”, I treat the speaker with distrust.

The irony is that the presenter undoubtedly chose the word methodology because she thought that it would impress her audience. It had the opposite effect on me. The program manual also misused the word methodology, so I’m sure that her colleagues who helped prepare the manual thought that this butchering of language was acceptable. The telecom and defense industries are loaded with pretentious and inaccurate phrases. It’s not a coincidence that they’re also loaded with pretentious and unimaginative people.

Visit my website: http://russbellew.com
© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Make English America’s official language petition

While on the White House petitions page, I stumbled upon this petition: Make English the official language of the United States of America. I signed it. It needs 96,000 more signatures by February 22.

English_languageI briefly discussed this a couple of years ago in Japan will teach English in English:

Why don’t we resolve to teach only in English in the United States? We’ve been wasting money for decades: in Dade County, Florida, the school board requires that if there are at least 3 students who speak another language, the county must provide classes for them in their native language. This is nonsense. If you expect to thrive in the United States, you must learn English. (I recently ranted about Spanish language broadcasting within the United States. Teaching in anything but English is a similar waste of resources and actually harms the students.)

and in Going Green:

Well-meaning liberals think that broadcasting entertainment and news in Spanish is being kind to Spanish speakers. Of course, the opposite is true: Spanish language broadcasts discourage the learning of English and cripple Spanish-only speakers so that they’re unable to function outside of their Spanish language ghettos. The US must define English as the sole official language of the nation. Otherwise, we’ll devolve into a loose collection of tribes.

I don’t want to live on a continent that’s a collection of tribes. I support making English the official language of the United States.

Visit my website: http://russbellew.com
© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Web-based B.S. generators

dack.com's B.S. Generator
Click image to run B.S. Generator
artwork: Anynobody

A handy web-based B.S. Generator is just the ticket for MBAs who write e-business pronouncements. Since little of their verbiage makes sense anyway, why not ask their desktop computers to generate random strings of buzzwords? Best-of-breed B.S. generators’ vocabularies always include pretentious words such as methodology and overused phrases such as . . . well, such as best-of-breed.

Let’s test-drive dack.com’s B.S. Generator. We’ll join its output phrases into sentences:

Our strategy is to exploit next-generation convergence while leveraging strategic e-business opportunities. This will drive robust schemas that expedite ubiquitous e-commerce. Of course, we must first evolve world-class e-markets and transition cross-platform synergies which will extend distributed mindshare. We can then deploy strategic paradigms in order to target visionary users. I propose that we streamline back-end metrics so that we may target world-class functionalities.

There — how did we do? Hmmm, not bad, considering that all we needed to do was link the B.S. Generator’s phrases together. True, the paragraph makes no sense, but neither do the paragraphs that are written by most MBAs.


  • Two dack.com B.S. Generator reviews:
    • I laughed so hard my paradigm shifted and I spent a week in the hospital.
      — Mark S.
    • The Norman conquest served to enrich the English language, but the onslaught of business and academia threatens to diminish our language to the point where only vulgarities will have any f*cking meaning.
      —Joel M.
  • For a glossary, touch base with The Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary.
  • For commentary, tee-up The Most Annoying, Pretentious And Useless Business Jargon, Forbes, Jan 26 2012.
  • Google “bullsh*t generator” to discover more verbosity enhancers.
Visit my website: http://russbellew.com
© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

George Orwell’s web content advice

How to write understandable English text.

George Orwell, 'Politics and the English Language,' 1946
drawing: Bernd Pohlenz

I ran across George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. In it, he argues in favor of brevity and clarity, and mocks what he calls “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else”.

Orwell examines writing samples and concludes, ” . . . quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose . . . [which] consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

I wish that Orwell could see what passes for writing in today’s tech and business documents. Many press releases, websites, and speeches are incomprehensible. I wrote about this recently after trying to decipher some tech vendors’ websites (Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net Redux). I have little to add to Orwell’s essay to bring it up to date. All of the remaining words are Mr. Orwell’s:

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.


George Orwell
1903 – 1950
author

Animal Farm
Nineteen Eighty-Four


This is a parody, but not a very gross one.


A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?


One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.


 
Bravo!

Visit my website: http://russbellew.com
© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net Redux

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Tower of Babel
painting: Hill

I recently viewed a few defense contractors’ websites and discovered that much of their text is incomprehensible. Why? It’s loaded with jargon (domain, methodologies,[1] “our skills map into the Government space”), acronyms, abbreviations, and redundancies (“more efficient and cost-effective operations”) and so on and so fifth.[2]

Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net was Homer Simpson’s dot com company from The Simpsons episode Das Bus. He obviously had no idea what he was doing, so tried to dazzle onlookers with his jargon. When browsing some supposedly high-tech vendors’ websites, I’d swear that Homer Simpson wrote their copy.

There are a few trendy words and phrases that I avoid: empowerment, paradigm, “maps into”, incent, utilize, “architect” as a verb, “spend” as a noun, and “is comprised of”. When I run across them in published text, they suggest that the author is either

  1. a poor writer
  2. unsure of his meaning
  3. pretentious
  4. trying to hide something
  5. ignorant of the subject, OR
  6. all of the above.

Confused website text confirms my suspicion that many enterprises are at their heart, confused.

A good friend of mine who works in the defense electronics industry tells me that this peculiar dialect is standard practice. He attaches a glossary to every report that he writes.

What are your least-loved Newspeak terms?


    1. In recent years . . . “methodology” has been increasingly used as a pretentious substitute for “method” in scientific and technical contexts . . . the American Heritage Dictionary (1992 edition), quoted by Peter Klein in Method versus Methodology. Hung Nguyen replied, There are two types of people who use the word ‘methodology’ instead of ‘method’: those who are ignorant and those who would like to use it just for its sound – a kind of big word.
    2. From Inflationary Language, written and performed by the incomparable Victor Borge
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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

A true “One-way algorithm” may not exist.

Italian traffic signs-old -senso unico

Next time I’ll say “hash algorithm”.

A few days ago, while discussing the theft of 450,000 passwords from Yahoo!, I used the phrase “one-way algorithm”. Apparently the existence of such a thing is still unproven. So how do you describe a function that’s easy to perform in one direction, and difficult (VERY difficult, but theoretically possible) in the other direction?

Take the multiplication of two large prime numbers, each of 10 digits. Multiply them together – that’s easy. Now forget the first two numbers and try to factor their product — that’s difficult!

Computer science calls these functions “hash algorithms”. I guess that I’ll stick with that phrase, even though “one-way algorithm” is self-descriptive, if not 100% accurate. Language is fascinating.

Visit my website: http://russbellew.com
© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Japan will teach English in English

Japan to emphasize English fluency. (Why doesn’t America?)

I heard a story on NPR’s All Things Considered about Japan’s increasing emphasis on the use of the English language by its corporations and citizens. The Japanese government acknowledges that English is the world’s language for commerce and technology. They have mandated that by 2013, all high school English classes will be taught not in Japanese, but in English.

Why don’t we resolve to teach only in English in the United States? We’ve been wasting money for decades: in Dade County, Florida, the school board requires that if there are at least 3 students who speak another language, the county must provide classes for them in their native language. This is nonsense. If you expect to thrive in the United States, you must learn English. (I recently ranted about Spanish language broadcasting within the United States. Teaching in anything but English is a similar waste of resources and actually harms the students.)

Visit my website: http://russbellew.com

© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

 

 

Going Green

Visit Wayne’s World.

waynegreen.com
Wayne Green

Wayne Green is still writing up a storm, after at least 50 years. When I became interested in amateur radio c 1961, there were a few ham radio magazines that were worth reading. One of them was 73 Magazine, which was edited by an entertaining fellow named Wayne Green. Each month, Wayne would rant about the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), CW (Continuous Wave — Morse Code), and the ARRL (American Radio Relay League, a radio amateur association filled with old-timers). Wayne has held Amateur Radio callsign W2NSD for years. He used the phonetics “W2 Never Say Die”.

73 Magazine archives

73 Magazine (“73” is telegraphy shorthand for “best regards”) was filled with detailed equipment construction articles: how to build radio transmitters, receivers, antennas, and accessories.

Wayne’s campaigns

I stopped reading 73 Magazine in the late 1960s, but Wayne kept publishing and writing. (Read 73 magazine archives online.) His editorials strayed into nutrition, NASA moon landing conspiracy theories, cold fusion, etc, and assorted looney areas. Wayne championed amateur radio VHF/UHF radio repeaters, which pre-dated cellular radio sites. He also was an early enthusiast of single sideband, radioteletype, moonbounce, and satellite communications for radio amateurs. Wayne went on to publish several microcomputer related magazines in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

Wayne’s computer periodicals

Here’s a chapter in Wayne’s life that’s disputed: According to Wayne, he, with the assistance of his ex-wife, started a new computer magazine titled Byte in 1975. According to Virgina, his ex-wife, Wayne’s participation in the founding of Byte was minimal. In any case, Wayne left Byte and started up his own computer magazine, which he planned to call Kilobyte. Virgina sued, and Wayne changed his new magazine’s title to Kilobaud. Kilobaud enjoyed healthy growth (though nothing like Byte‘s growth) for years, into the 1980s. I liked early issues of both Byte and Kilobaud, because they both had good mixes of technical and non-technical articles. I stayed with Kilobaud longer because it kept a strong technical — especially hardware — theme for years. Wayne used Kilobaud as a springboard to start publication of new magazines that were dedicated to the Tandy TRS80, the Apple II, and Commodore computers. Eventually, these magazines folded, and Kilobaud itself folded in 1984.

Wayne today

Wayne shut down 73 Magazine in 2003. He’s been a guest of Art Bell (another radio amateur who indulges in loony theories) on his radio show 24 times. Wayne continues to frequently write articles on his blog — some express crackpot ideas, but others make sense. He’s proposed that the U.S. outlaw Spanish language radio and television broadcasts. On the face of it, this sounds wacky . . . but it actually makes sense, in view of the invasion that’s underway from our Latin American neighbors. Spanish language broadcasts tell Spanish speakers who live in the United States that they can live their lives in Spanish-speaking ghettos, rather than speaking English.

I agree with Wayne regarding Spanish language broadcasts

Well-meaning liberals think that broadcasting entertainment and news in Spanish is being kind to Spanish speakers. Of course, the opposite is true: Spanish language broadcasts discourage the learning of English and cripple Spanish-only speakers so that they’re unable to function outside of their Spanish language ghettos. The US must define English as the sole official language of the nation. Otherwise, we’ll devolve into a loose collection of tribes.

Computerworld wrote a good biography of Wayne in 2008. At that time he was 86 years old.

Visit my website: http://russbellew.com

© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

 

First non-Latin domain names approved by ICANN

Photo by Marco Bellucci
Egypt goes live with Arabic domain names.

Last Fall, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) authorized the use of top level domain names that use non-Latin characters, and the first Arabic character domain names went live this week. Read about it in ICANN’s blog. There’s a good video clip there that explains the importance of IDNs (Internationalized Domain Names) to billions of people.

This won’t affect most of us who are already Internet users, but it will open the Internet to masses of people who read and write only in Arabic, Farsi, and other languages with non-Latin characters. Now they’ll be able to use keyboards with local characters to access the Internet.

My guess is that some of these domains will point to existing Latin character domains.

Yes, Arabic domain names will read from right to left. If you want to view them from a US English Windows computer, you’ll need to load an Arabic font. (These fonts are available on your Windows CD-ROM or DVD.)

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