Earnest Words

Get It Right When You Write (Or Speak): 3 Commonly Misused Words

So I’m at the gym the other morning putting in an hour on my favorite elliptical, the one that’s smack dab in front of the TV. The Today Show is on and they’re doing a segment on retirement planning. The reporter is interviewing a financial expert.

“So,” she asks, “what are the things people need to be honing in on as they approach retirement?”

I grimace and think, “No, that’s not right.”

Then I recalled a conversation from a couple of years ago. I’d emailed my client a draft of the direct mail promotion I’d written for him. After he looked it over we talked on the phone. He questioned me about the following sentence: “You’ll collaborate with Alan and others in the room to home in on the answers.”

“Home in,” Alan asked, “is that correct?”

As I’m sure you’ve concluded by now, the first of my 3 Commonly Misused Words is -

  1. Hone – According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word hone, meaning “to sharpen,” has been around since 1828. You can hone a knife and you can hone your writing, public speaking and marketing skills. But you can’t hone inon anything.

    The correct word, the correct phrase, is home in. In the 19th century the metaphor referred to what homing pigeons do. By the early 20th century, the phrase came to refer also to what aircraft and missiles do.

    Search the phrase hone in though and you’ll see that its usage is widespread. Respected writers such as George Plimpton and Bob Greene have used the phrase. It’s appeared in the pages of the New York Times, the Boston Herald and many other well-regarded publications. At least one online dictionary lists “to move or advance toward a target or goal” as a definition for hone in.

    Still, any communicator who’s serious about communicating will avoid hone in. Sure, most people will understand what you mean by it. But some of them will “discount the messenger” for using this phrase.

    Why take that hit to your credibility? If home in on doesn’t sound right to you go with zero in on – which, on second thought, might have been a better choice of words for that promo I wrote for Alan.

  2. Comprise – If there were a “Hall-of-Shame” comprising exhibits related to misused words, the space devoted to comprise would surely be one of its largest. The comprise exhibit would be filled with such examples as the following:

    “What they’re saying is far from riveting, but together these images comprise [make up] a small-town symphony of pig racing and wedding planning, young love and old misdemeanors.” – New York Times

     “If, when configuring an action dialog, you want to be able to view the values that comprise [constitute] a CVL, run Designer….” – IBM.com

     “So they devised a sound-damping sensor, comprised of [composed of] an infra-red motion-detector, a speaker and a microphone.” – FastCompany.com

     Comprise means “to include, contain, consist of.” The whole comprises the parts.

    As with hone-in, you can find a dictionary entry to justify using comprise to mean “to form, to make up.” My paperback Oxford American Dictionary includes “to form, to make up” as the third definition for comprise. But it also adds the following usage note: “The words constitute and compose are preferable in this sense. It is incorrect to say or write ‘the apartment is comprised of three rooms.’” (They clearly state that the usage is incorrect. And yet they include it as a definition anyway. Go figure.)

    To wrap up this section, here are three examples where the writers make precise and skillful use of comprise:

    “Comprising six essential programs, AMTECH Office Pro increases your competitive advantage, helps you win business and saves you time and money.” – AMTECH Power Software website, product description page

    “Crown Business Park is an exciting new development and will comprise high specification office, industrial and warehouse buildings along with bespoke design and build opportunities.” –  Barnfield Construction website

    “Serge Brunier is a French photographer and writer who has specialized in the stars. One of his most stunning works, a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panoramic view of the Milky Way, comprises more than a thousand photographs taken over the course of a year.” “Digital Pick: Starry Night” New Yorker (blog), May 20, 2010

  3. Podium – In August 2009 President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy at Sen. Ted Kennedy’s funeral mass. It’s a moving and (as you would expect at this level) well-written speech. This otherwise note-perfect piece of prose, however, is marred by the President’s misusage of the word podium.

    Obama’s text, referring to Sen. Kennedy, reads as follows:

    “We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature, in support of health care or workers’ rights or civil rights.”

    Obama and his speechwriters paint a vivid picture and they no doubt liked the alliteration of “pounding the podium.” Problem is, in the most widely accepted definition of podium, Sen. Kennedy would have to have fallen flat on his face to be “pounding the podium.”

    That’s because, according to Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, “A lectern is the stand on which a speaker places his or her notes. A podium is the raised platform on which the speaker and lectern stand.” And in The Accidents of Style, Charles Harrington Elster, a nationally recognized authority on language and the author of eight books, writes, “The style manuals of The Associated Press and The New York Times support that time-honored distinction [lectern versus podium] and insist, as the latter puts it, that ‘a speaker stands on a podium and at or behind a lectern.’”

    For the final word on podium I turn to Garner’s Modern American Usage. This widely respected guide acknowledges that while using podium for lectern “has become commonplace…careful writers should avoid it.”

Careful writers, isn’t that what we all should aspire to be? Of course it’s one thing if you’re sending an email to a family member or friend. Another thing altogether if you’re –

  • posting content on the company website or blog
  • writing a white paper, case study or newsletter
  • giving a presentation at an industry conference
  • making the “big pitch” to the buying committee when your pitch is one of three competing pitches.

In the above instances and in all our business communications we want to put our best foot forward, and that calls for careful writing. Because careful writing preserves and enhances our credibility. Bryan Garner, writing in the preface to the third edition of his Garner’s Modern American Usage and alluding to those who urge wider acceptance of such disputed usages as presented in this article, has this to say:

“There aren’t just a few dozen trouble spots in the language, or even a few hundred. There are several thousand of them. Given the critical acumen of many readers, for a writer to remain unconscious of these pitfalls and write whatever sounds close enough will inevitably lead to a loss of credibility. Vague intelligibility isn’t the touchstone; precision is.”

Hone in? Comprised of? Using podium for lectern? If your objective is not only to communicate, but to communicate with a precision that preserves and enhances your credibility, you’ll forgo (not forego) these words and phrases and make every effort to…get it right when you write (or speak).

That’s my take. What’s yours?

© 2011 Ernest Nicastro

Why Do People Write This Way? (And How You Can Avoid Doing The Same)

Leverages a proprietary coaching framework…purposeful investments in human capital…aligning people and systems in pursuit of….

…why do people write this way?

To dramatize the absurdity of this type of non-communication I’m going to stage a scene.

“Bob” runs a consulting firm that helps entrepreneurs, business owners and managers become more effective leaders. He’s going over a few details with his new receptionist when a sharp dressed man (any ZZ Top fans out there?) in a suit and tie walks in.

Bob looks up, smiles, and says, “Good afternoon, Sir. How can I help you? The sharp dressed man replies, “Sir, I’m a business owner and I’ve been searching for a good consulting and training firm that focuses on leadership issues. I was in this building for a meeting with my accountant and when I walked by your office and saw the name of your business…well, something just clicked with me. Got a few minutes to talk?”

Bob shows Mr. Sharp Dressed Man to his office and they both take a seat. “So,” the man asks, “can you tell me exactly what it is Leader Coaching does?” “Sure,” Bob says, “I’d be happy to tell you about us…”

“Leader Coaching leverages a proprietary coaching framework, proven over years of practical application and success, to collaborate with clients in pursuit of shared goals.”

As a confused look washes over his prospect’s face Bob attempts to “clarify” his answer:

“In other words Sir, Leader Coaching’s services meet the expectations of business leaders who recognize the value of purposeful investments in human capital – often beginning
with themselves – as a means of preparing and aligning people and systems in pursuit of growth.”

At that, Mr. Sharp Dressed Man says, “O…K. Well, um…thanks. I…uh…I’ll…I’ll keep that in mind.” And leaves, never to be heard from again.

Can you blame him?

Don’t succumb to the disease of “corporatese”
Leverages a proprietary coaching framework? Purposeful investments in human capital? Aligning people and systems in pursuit? Say what? I ask you, can you imagine yourself EVER talking to a client or prospect in this manner? No, of course not. And neither would you put such gibberish on your website. (You wouldn’t, would you?) Yet, save for the first four words of the second quote, all of the highlighted copy was taken, verbatim, from an active website. A website written almost entirely in “corporatese.” (I’ve changed the company name  in order to protect the guilty.)

Corporatese, as you might expect, is the collective term for the jargon, phrases and fad words many writers use to make their communications and businesses seem more substantial and important. NOT!

Those who write in corporatese love a paradigm, whether it’s new, shifting or otherwise. And they would never think of simply using something when they can leverage it. Those who write in corporatese are really into activities such as aligning people - or should it be aligning human capital? One would think you get major corporatese points for using leveraging the phrase aligning human capital. (What a warm, fuzzy term. Who among us does not enjoy being referred to as human capital?)

For sure, human capital has been overwhelmingly embraced by the corporatese community, with more than three times the number of search engine hits as you get for even paradigm shift.

People Human capital, we have a new leader in the clubhouse!

But I digress – and yes, I’m lathering on the sarcasm.

So if corporatese is the problem, what is the solution? I’ll present two. One is a strategy, the other is a tool.

To highlight the strategic solution I’ll turn to Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, surprisingly enough, the A-Team’s Mr. T.:

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.” – Mark Twain

“It is not enough to write so that you can be understood; you must write so clearly that you cannot be misunderstood [emphasis added].” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Or, if you prefer your tenets to be even more succinct, here’s how the A-Team’s Mr. T puts it:

“Don’t gimme none o’ that jibba-jabba!”

Whether you prefer the more eloquently worded advice of Twain and Emerson or the more terse counsel of Mr. T, acting on the wisdom of these words will serve you, your writing and your readers well. For example, it’s hard to imagine that the writer cited earlier would have churned out such “jibba-jabba” if he’d had the above quotes within eyesight or top-of-mind when writing.

A helpful but overlooked tool.
Now, on to the writing tool solution, which I’m happy to report is – literally – right at your fingertips. As everyone knows, the “Spelling & Grammar Check” feature in Microsoft Word identifies obvious spelling and grammatical errors. In some instances it even offers suggested revisions. In addition, once the application has finished checking your text a window pops up. This window gives you a readout on ten different components of your writing, the four most helpful being -

  1. Words per sentence (average)
  2. Percentage of passive sentences
  3. Flesch Reading Ease score
  4. Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Let’s review why paying attention to these four readouts can improve your writing:

  • Words per sentence – In general, the longer the sentence, the harder it becomes for your reader to follow along. That’s not to say you should always write in short sentences. What you should strive for is a variety that makes for interesting and engaging reading. But if the sentences in your text are, on average, 25 words long, then your copy probably isn’t as  readable as it should be.
  • Percentage of sentences written in the passive voice - If your objective is to engage, involve and influence your reader, almost always the case with any type of marketing copy, then write predominantly in the active voice. Note the difference between, “Once the button has been clicked, the order is generated…” and “When you click the button, we immediately generate your order….” The former reads like Christmas party conversation with the dull, nerdy guy in the IT department (not that all IT guys are dull and nerdy) while the latter reads like you’re talking with the energetic, service-focused gal in sales.
  • Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score - The FRE score was developed in 1948 by author and writing consultant Rudolf Flesch. Widely considered one of the most accurate readability formulas you can use, the FRE score is based on a range of 0-100, with lower values for harder text and higher values for easier text. For example, a typical issue of Reader’s Digest earns an FRE score of around 65 while Time Magazine scores in the low 50′s. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Addressscores a 74.2.

    By comparison, the “about us” text in the consultant/prospect scene has an FRE score of 16.8 and the “clarification” text scores 14.8. In both instances the copy is  less readable than even a U. S. tax form.

  • Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL) – The FKGL score, developed by Rudolf Flesch and John P. Kincaid, is basically an add-on to the FRE score. As its name implies, this score indicates the number of years of education generally required to understand your text. And generally speaking, you want to write at a level ranging from the seventh to the tenth grade. For example, most newspapers in the U.S. are written at a seventh to eighth grade level. By contrast, in the consultant/prospect example the “about us” line is written at a grade level of 16.8 while the grade level for Bob’s “clarification” line is 21.4. Not good.

But enough about how bad the writing is in our staged scene. How might one make it better? I’ll tackle the “about us” line. (For the “clarification” copy the best I could come up with is to edit it out entirely.) Currently, the line reads, “Leader Coaching leverages a proprietary coaching framework, proven over years of practical application and success, to collaborate with clients in pursuit of shared goals.” I would recast it to read as follows

“Leader Coaching uses a proven coaching system to help clients manage their people and their business for greater profit.”

I’ve edited the sentence down from 24 words to 19, raised the FRE score to 49.5 and lowered the grade-level to 11. “But,” you might say, “you left out the fact that the firm uses a ‘proprietary’ system.’” My retort to this point is that the reader doesn’t care about this fact.

Proprietary is not a “YOU” word, it’s a “ME/WE/US” word, as in… “Oh, we need to let people know that this is a proprietary system that we developed ourselves. “Having that fact posted on your website might be good for your corporate and personal ego but it doesn’t mean anything to the prospect visiting your website.

Leverages a proprietary coaching framework…purposeful investments in human capital…aligning people and systems in pursuit of….

…why do people write this way?

I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that it’s flat out bad communication and bad communication is bad for you, bad for your reader and, if you’re communicating in a commercial way, bad for business.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Even if you’re not a professional writer, even if you’re not a particularly good writer, if you’ll –

  1. Keep the words of Twain, Emerson -  and yes, even Mr. T. – within eyesight when writing
  2. Take full advantage of the helpful tool that is, literally, right at your fingertips…

…you CAN and you WILL write better.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

© 2010 Ernest Nicastro

NOTE: I am presently working on a Special Report along the same lines as the material in this article. But it will include much more content. If you’d like a copy of the Report, which should be ready in a couple of weeks, send an email to enicastro@positiveresponse.com with a subject line of Report.

Recommendations for additional reading:

Simple & Direct, by Jacques Barzun

Clear Writing With Mr Clarity Blog

Welcome To Earnest Words!

My name is Ernest Wayne Nicastro. My father chose Ernest to honor a beloved cousin, who died young, that he spent Summers with as a child. My mom was a big John Wayne fan. I can even do a decent impersonation of “The Duke.” That said, I’ve never been particularly enamored with my name. I suppose circumstances have had a lot to do with that.

I entered grammar school right about the time that a certain Fidel Castro rose to power in Cuba. My classmates, even teachers to some extent, had fun with Nicastro. “Oh, like Castro in Cuba, right?” Aside from that, there was the dorky-looking kid on My Three Sons named Ernie.

During my high school years another high-profile Ernie entered the national consciousness: Ernie, from Bert and Ernie and Sesame Street fame. “Hey Ernie, where’s Bert?” Yep, I’ve heard that one, oh, at least a couple (thousand) times. Segue to my adult years and along comes  the obnoxious, goofy, fictional character and advertising pitchman Ernest P. Worrell, memorably portrayed by the late Jim Varney. In addition to a whole slew of commercials which aired with great frequency in my viewing area, Varney starred in a number of Ernest movies, including such cinematic “masterpieces” as Ernest Goes To Camp, Ernest Goes To Jail, Slam Dunk Ernest and Ernest Scared Stupid.

You getting the picture? Ernest/Ernie + Nicastro = Not cool. And, well, we all like to think of ourselves as cool, right?

Despite all this, there have been times when I’ve made my name pay off for me. A number of years ago, I wrote and performed an award-winning speech about the trials and tribulations of going through life with my name. Entitled The Triviality of Being Ernest, this speech took top prize in Toastmasters International’s Humorous Speech Contest for District 40. It was great making people laugh.

My biggest laugh came, fittingly, at the end of the speech.  After about six minutes recounting the trials, tribulations and triviality of going through life with my un-mellifluous moniker I dramatically announced my personal re-branding using the Italian pronunciation of my last name:”Introducing for the first time, in public, ‘E. Nicastro!’”

After the big announcement I pointed out the “cool factor” associated with being Italian, including: the popularity of Italian food and the success and acclaim of certain Italian-American athletes and other famous Italians. Then, I closed with the following:

“I chose ‘E’ because it’s short, simple, very difficult to misspell or mispronounce and it’s good psychology. When I hear the initial ‘E’ I think of ‘E’ as in exciting, ‘E’ as in enticing, ‘E’ as in entertaining…and of course (pointing at the temple of my head a la The Scarecrow from the Wizard of OZ ) ‘E’ as in…intelligent.”

Whadda’ you think? Oh. Well. Uh, I guess you had to be there.

So here we are in 2010 and “E.” has decided to enter the ranks of the bloggerati and once again I may have found a positive way to use my not so cool first name. Earnest Words works as the title for my blog for a couple of different reasons. First, it’s obviously a homophone for my name and some people spell their name that way and these are my words so that all adds up nicely. Second, and more importantly, is that the phrase itself states exactly what I plan to present here: earnest words.

Within these earnest words – from me, you, and others – the aim is that you will find thoughts, ideas, tips, advice and recommendations that you can use to advance your career, grow your business or both.

Go to dictionary.com and you’ll find the following definition of earnest:

  1. serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous: an earnest worker.
  2. showing depth and sincerity of feeling: earnest words; an earnest entreaty
  3. seriously important; demanding or receiving serious attention.
  4. full seriousness, as of intention or purpose: to speak in earnest.

Earnest does, in fact, describe me quite well. I do bring an earnestness to any project I work on, any endeavor I undertake. Earnest, come to think of it, also applies to most of the characters John Wayne played – and, to the man himself. Now that’s a connection I’ve never made until this very moment. Wow! Blogging has paid off for me already! So maybe mom and dad knew what they were doing after all. Probably not, but it’s nice to think that.

My name is Ernest Wayne Nicastro and I thank you for reading and for letting me share a few earnest words with you in this blog’s first official post. Please check back soon.

That’s my take. What’s yours?