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Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain & Lightning: Choice Words On Word Choice

“Eighty-seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation….
The Gettysburg Address

Thankfully, Abraham Lincoln was not only a great leader, he was a great writer. So instead of beginning his Gettysburg Address with a cold, lifeless number, he opens on a prayerful note with a turn of phrase adapted from the 90th Psalm of the King James Bible: “Four score and seven.” 

Clearly, Lincoln knew the difference between the almost right word – and, the RIGHT word. A distinction defined by Mark Twain some 25 years later as…”the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” With this thought in mind, in today’s post I offer a few choice words on word choice to help you get more of the right words into your copy and make your writing more engaging, memorable and effective.

Let’s start by looking at a line from the sports section of my local daily, The Columbus Dispatch.  In a story a few years back, the reporter described Dick Vitale’s reaction to being voted into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame. Vitale, explained the writer, “admitted he ‘cried like a baby’ upon learning he was induced.” 

Maybe Vitale’s use of the word baby clouded the writer’s thinking. Because induced is so NOT the right word.  (And yes, in all fairness maybe it was simply a typo. Either way, the end result is the same: poor communication.)

Which leads us to today’s big (but hardly revolutionary) idea: For more effective word choice think harder about the words you choose.

For example, although it’s obvious that the reporter made the wrong choice, what about the writers who penned these lines?

  • This is literally the equivalent of Microsoft coming to your house and locking a CD in your car CD player.
  • More CIOs are disinterested in Linux
  • And I know you didn’t do this just to win an election. And I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.

How many of these people made the wrong word choice? Actually, that’s a trick question. Because they all did. Yes, you may have read or heard a word used a certain way – even in a prestigious publication, by a noted expert or by the soon-to-be leader of the free world. But that doesn’t mean the word was used correctly. (See my earlier post, Get It Right When You Write (Or Speak): 3 Commonly Misused Words, for more examples like the above.)

As to why the above words are – in Mark Twain’s manner of speaking, lightning bugs – I’ll go over one of them: enormity.

The first two definitions listed in my Oxford American Dictionary (OAD) are - 

  1. Great wickedness, the enormity of this crime.
  2. A serious crime, these enormities.

In all fairness, the OAD lists “enormous size, hugeness” as its third definition.  But it follows this listing with a usage note that reads: “Careful writers do not use this word in the last meaning. They use enormousness.”  I don’t know about you, but I expect presidential speechwriters to fall into the careful writers group.

Now for two specific word choice tips:

  1. Choose small, simple words –

The Gettysburg Address is 271 words long. Two hundred and twenty of them, 81%, are just one syllable. My advice? For more effective word choice think like Lincoln. Think small:

Instead of writing “utilize,” “peruse,” “ascertain,” write “use,” “read,” “find out.”

Now am I advising you to never use big words?  No, of course not.  But in most cases small words will serve your purposes better.  And here’s one reason why:

“The more simply and plainly an idea is presented, the more understandable it is – and therefore the more credible it will be.”
Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear – By Dr. Frank Luntz

My second word choice tip is this:

  1. Use mainly nouns and verbs and vigorous, active-voice words

Strunk and White in their classic book, The Elements of Style, put it this way:

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs….It is nouns and verbs that give to good writing its toughness and character.”

As to the active voice, legendary copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis lays down the law in his “Active/Passive Rule.”

“Unless you specifically want to avoid reader involvement in your message, always write in the active voice.”

For instance:

  • Instead of writing: “Once the button has been clicked, the order is generated immediately and an e-mail confirmation will be sent automatically to you.”
  • Write: When you click the button, we immediately generate your order and automatically send you an e-mail confirmation.

Notice the difference the active voice makes? Notice also how the active voice makes the writing more “you-centric.” Simply put, active verbs keep your reader involved and improve credibility and response rates.

For example, I seldom use the word “allows” because it’s a passive, “permission granting” word. I prefer enables or makes it possible. Unlike “allows,” enables and makes it possible  are active and empowering. As a result, these words are more likely to keep your reader involved with your copy.

So -

  • Instead of writing “Study Software allows you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….” write “Study Software enables you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….”
  • Instead of writing “SmartList To Go allows you to create, view and manage databases on your handheld.” write “SmartList To Go makes it possible for you to create, view and manage databases on your handheld.”

Words are powerful business tools. And the good news is that no matter who you are – Bill Gates or Bill Bailey – you have the same access to these powerful tools as anybody else

So, to greatly improve your odds of catching lightning on a page or a screen and gaining the response you seek, remember today’s big idea and two tips:

For more effective word choice, think harder about the word you choose.

  1. Choose small, simple words.
  2. Choose mainly nouns and verbs and vigorous active-voice words.

Follow these recommendations and while your words might not make history…they will be duly noted, better remembered – and, most importantly, more effective.

Recommendations for additional reading:
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words
, By Ronald C. White Jr.
Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear
,
By Dr. Frank Luntz
On the Art of Writing Copy, Third Edition
, by Herschell Gordon Lewis
The Elements of Style
, by William Strunk and E.B. White

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