Monday, February 21, 2011

Bad Writing: Pet Peeves

There are many commonly made mistakes in the world of business writing, and every one of them has the potential to push someone's buttons--hard. Murphy's Law says that the someone will usually be the person you most hoped to impress.

Why any one person finds a relatively minor error infuriating is as impossible a question to answer as why some people like spinach and others don't. And to protest "you're making a big deal over nothing" never wins friends or customers, even if true. All we can do is write as flawlessly as possible, prove our professionalism by apologizing when someone complains ("thank you for setting me straight" rarely fails to turn away wrath)--and remember that we also have our pet peeves. 

What phrasings, typos, and sentence constructions do you most hate to see in writing? Here are my top three:

My own name misspelled in a supposedly personal message. The dislike of this is no doubt universal, but it's a particular bane to those of us who bear common names with uncommon spellings. The gut reaction is, "You're just like everyone else--too lazy to look closely at the way I write my own name--and then you expect me to believe you're interested in me as an individual."

It's where its should be. All of us are taught in grade school that the possessive its has no apostrophe, yet the business world is full of college graduates who can't remember that simple rule.

That instead of who used to refer to a person. Technically, this isn't an actual error, but it grates on many of us to read "the secretary that typed the memo" instead of "the secretary who typed the memo." Something deep down says that the secretary has been reduced to an "it."

Please submit your own pet peeves as comments. I'd love to get a lively discussion going on this!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Verbal Shorthand: Not Always a Good Idea

Abbreviations and acronyms were invented long before text messaging, but serve the same broad purpose: to speed up communications. Who (with the exception of students trying to fill minimum-word-count essay quotas) wants to write out "North Atlantic Treaty Organization" eighteen times in the course of a document? Who would rather read it eighteen times when the four-letter, two-syllable "NATO" is available?

One small problem. "NATO" can also stand for "No Action, Talk Only"; "Night At The Opera"; "Not Another Teen Organization"; "National Association of Timeshare Owners"; "National Association of Taxicab Owners"; or some 50 additional possibilities. The slightest ambiguity of context can leave a sizable percentage of readers--especially those to whom an alternative meaning is the "normal" one--scratching their heads.

The proven method for maximizing both understanding and efficiency is to spell out the phrase the first time--"North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)"--and use the now-clearly-defined acronym thereafter. But as with jargon, many writers never consider that their everyday language may be someone else's first-time encounter. Unless you're dealing with an acronym that has achieved common-noun status (such as "radar" for "RAdio  Detection And Ranging"), follow the advice from the classic The Elements of Style: "Even if everyone did [know the meaning of any given acronym], there are babies being born every minute who will someday encounter the name for the first time. They deserve to see the words, not simply the initials.... Many shortcuts are self-defeating; they waste the reader's time instead of conserving it."

And especially these days, wasting someone's time is the unforgivable sin.

See also Acronym Finder.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Watch Those Links!

If you insist on leaving typos in e-mails, there are three areas, at least, that must be exempt: proper nouns (especially contact names); contact-information numbers (including street addresses); and the URLs of online links. Misspelling someone's name is a guaranteed way to annoy him; so is sending him to the wrong address, brick-and-mortar or electronic.

Online links are particularly tricky because they operate without benefit of human logic. If a link leads to the wrong website, the reader's only option is to return to the original message, manually check the link's URL, and try to figure out where the typo slipped in. Most people won't bother; most others will give the mistake only one chance to be obvious.

If it's important to you that your e-mail recipients follow the links you send them, here are four rules for you to follow.

1. If at all possible, copy the address directly from the page. This leaves no room for error.

2. With a page you last visited some time ago, return to verify it's still up before sending its address. Even if it was right last year, things change quickly online.

3. If no immediate access to the website is available, and the link must be sent immediately, proofread it with extra care. If you spell "California" as "Califronia" and bury that inconspicuously within a long URL, you have only yourself to blame for the results.

4. Be especially careful if linking to a well-known organization. The Internet is full of porn and other unscrupulous sites that mimic the URLs of famous names (e. g., vs. the official NASA site, to lure in careless surfers. Don't aid and abet them.

The Internet is a wonderful thing--but, like all marvels of technology, it must be used according to instructions. Make sure you give people the right instructions.